Let’s be brave about the little things

Day 14 of the 12 Baby Rats Eyes Open
“Day 14 of the 12 Baby Rats Eyes Open” byForsaken Fotos is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guess what happened in New Zealand this week when a news story broke about Treasury civil servants playing a card game that featured ‘sun feelings’ and ‘moon feelings’? The playing cards were part of a staff wellbeing initiative to help people be more empathetic at work and have different conversations with colleagues.

What could have happened next was that a Treasury spokesperson robustly defended the cards, saying it was important for staff to get support around wellbeing, and that this was a low-cost approach that used a different and fun way to challenge entrenched patterns of behaviour. That wasn’t what happened.

A national news story broke: Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister, had to answer questions about it. Another party leader described the Treasury as ‘bizarre’ and ‘out of touch’. It was seen as further evidence that the current government are putting ‘fluffy’ ideas ahead of hard policy. Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick, who featured in the promotional video for the wellbeing initiative, had to go on-record saying that she did not seek to “prescribe what certain workplaces should be doing with their time.”

Catherine Mangan and I are in New Zealand as guests of ANZSOG. We’ve been talking at various events about the 21st Century Public Servant research (although we’ve not said much about our own playing card game lest it provoke further ire). In all the conversations we are having with public service leaders and managers, we all agree how important it is to take risks, do things differently, shift modes of thinking. ‘Seek forgiveness not permission,’ we say, and everyone nods.

But if we can’t be brave about the tiny little things – like a staff card game that uses some different language (and which its designers link to Maori metaphors) – how can we possibly expect staff to be willing to take risks on the big stuff, on the different ways of working with communities, of supporting families with complex needs?

I’m dismayed that it remains so hard to be brave even about the tiny things that government does that are a bit different. Although this issue is in New Zealand, we are all aware of similar types of stories from our own jurisdictions. The stories that make you think: that’s a handful of public servants who took a bit of a risk and are now being flayed for it. They won’t make that mistake again.

Do we need public service guerrillas?

Gorilla_gorilla_gorilla_Nbg
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=972456

Catherine Needham

I know that’s the wrong sort of guerrilla, but I think that’s what most people had in mind when I suggested at a recent event we needed more public service guerrillas. It was a development session for senior public service managers, and we were discussing how it feels to return to work after a training event that fires you up. You’ve been enthused by the benefits of risk-taking, of permission to fail, of working like relationships matter and of taking systems seriously. Then you go back into an organisation that doesn’t really want you to do any of those things, because of the disruptive consequences.

I suggested maybe people need to ‘go guerrilla’ – find small ways to put their learning into practice, enlist others, disrupt at the edges. Later I found Rosemary O’Leary’s fabulously titled article from 2010: Guerrilla Employees: Should Managers Nurture, Tolerate, or Terminate Them? It’s paywalled, but the gist is that what she calls ‘guerrilla government’ is commonplace, as public servants often ‘seek to address perceived wrongs and to influence their organizations’ policies.’

The examples she gives are those of public servants acting clandestinely to promote what they see as the public interest over the organisational interests they are expected to serve. This sort of discretionary behaviour is well-known in public services, as (some) frontline staff work to protect (some) clients from harsh welfare regimes. Similarly, getting innovative approaches to public services off the ground often requires public servants who are willing to give some latitude in relation to formal policies, as in the public service experiments that Cottam describes in Radical Help

Of course, the big issue here is working out when it’s ok to break the rules. As O’Leary notes, ‘it is sometimes difficult to sort out the “ethical” guerrillas from the “unethical” guerrillas, the guided from the misguided.’ Ambiguity will always exist, but she does offer us a checklist of the questions that government guerrillas should ask themselves before starting out: 

  • ‘Am I correct? More than a sincere belief is needed.
  • Is the feared damage immediate, permanent, and irreversible?
  • Are safety and health issues involved? Or is there time for a longer view and a more open strategy?
  • Am I adhering to the rule of law?
  • Is there a legitimate conflict of laws?
  • Is this an area that is purely and legitimately discretionary?
  • Were all reasonable alternative avenues pursued?
  • Would it be more ethical to promote transparency rather than working clandestinely?
  • Would it be more ethical to work with sympathetic legislators before turning to media and outside groups?’
  • Is whistle-blowing a preferable route?

These questions were written for those considering exposing organisational wrongdoing. But I think they lend themselves also to those of us who want to shake up working practices to better match public services to the lives of citizens.

Does being an authentic leader mean making leadership look easy?

 

Catherine Needham

21CPS_Leaders

At the AcademiWales Winter School for public service leaders we spent Day One talking about the need for leaders to be emotionally intelligent and honest, willing to express their fallibility and the difficulties of leading in complex systems. This model – a rejection of hero leadership – is advocated in a range of studies, including our 21st Century Public Servant research.

But Day Two brought a different perspective – Chai-Jung Tsay from University College London shared with us results of experiments at Harvard showing that people value innate ability more highly than effort when judging mini biographies. The experiments found that participants over-valued people whose biographies emphasised flair and natural talent and under-appreciated people whose biographies indicated that they worked hard to achieve their goals. Chai related this to the perception that Hilary Clinton had been seen as trying too hard – as over-rehearsed and lacking in authenticity compared to the natural leadership style of Obama and Trump.

The implication for leadership development is that internal and external audiences will respond better to someone who comes across as being ‘a natural’ rather than someone who shows the effort involved. In particular, authenticity, that much sought-after trait of leaders, comes from looking like leadership comes naturally to you, rather than being something you have worked hard to master.

So where does this leave our learning about leadership? Do we have to make it look easy – which feels like a return to the notion of the hero leader, who takes it all in his/her stride and never breaks a sweat?

One thing that struck me about the Harvard studies is that they ask people to make rapid decisions about people on the basis of minimal information – which indeed is similar to the way that we hire people, and similar to the decisions we make at election time. But leading an organisation isn’t like that – it is about building up relationships of trust over time. Might it be that the single game heuristics reported in the experiments are less influential, and the interactions are more like repeat games where sincerity over time becomes important?

We could see sincerity as a somewhat different form of authenticity to the notion of being ‘a natural’. Leaders are seen as sincere if people perceive that they are really feeling what they are expressing (which may include some expression of fallibility). Of course it’s possible to fake emotions as Hochschild found in her study of flight attendants. But studies show that it’s much more stressful to present an emotion you don’t feel, and likely to lead to burnout over time.

The difference between these two forms of authenticity (as being a natural versus being sincere) is well expressed in Mary Portas’ recent book Work Like a Woman. She talks of her attempts to mimic the alpha culture of macho leadership in the retail sector, hiding the messiness of her life and the effort that it took to keep up. Over time she came to an understanding that following her instincts and ‘bringing her whole self to work’ were a valid and effective form of leadership (one that she characterises as more female than male but one which to me fits broader anti-hero leadership theory).

Once Portas was the boss, she was able to be more authentic, but also to change the sorts of behaviour and emotions that were acceptable for all her staff. Acknowledgement of some of the ambiguity, frailty and difficulty of leadership doesn’t just help the authenticity of the leader, it sends a message to staff that they don’t have to pretend to be ‘a natural’ either – they can give voice to the tensions of delivering complex interventions on a shrinking budget (in public services). If we hide all the work of being a leader, it suggests to junior staff that they are doing it wrong if it takes effort. Of course there are dangers in competitive busyness where we all show off about how hard we work. But let’s not use that to pretend that leadership is no effort at all, or that good leaders are born not made.

 

How UK councils are using the 21st Century Public Servant research

By Dr Dave Mckenna, an independent consultant

If you are one of the many public servants who have been using the 21st Century Public Servant research, you will very likely be interested in what others are doing with it.

This is one the things I heard from the local government people that I spoke to as part of the evaluation I recently conducted for INLOGOV. The aim of the evaluation was to assess the impact of the 21st Century Public Servant research for something called the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (a kind of mega audit for universities in the UK), but I’m sure the findings will be of interest to practitioners as well. The evaluation focussed on local government, but I hope there will also be something of interest for those in other sectors.

If you want to see the full evaluation report, you can find it here. In the meantime, here are some of the headlines.

Drawing on data from 211 out of 418 councils (a mix of surveys, web searches and various other sources) I found that:

  • At minimum, around half of all principal UK councils have at least some awareness of the research with over half of these councils having a good awareness.
  • At minimum, around a quarter of all principal councils in the UK have experienced at least some benefit from the research with over two thirds of these councils experiencing significant benefit.

English metropolitan boroughs, shire counties and shire unitaries had the highest levels of awareness and benefit. Scottish and Welsh unitaries along with English shire districts having the lowest.

In terms of what councils are using the research for, leadership development was the most prominent activity with many councils using the research with their senior management teams and for leadership ‘academies’. Workforce planning was also a common use as was support the development of competency/value /behaviour frameworks.

I also found that the research has made a difference for many staff, in particular those in senior positions. This has been marked by culture changes, specifically around greater delegation and role flexibility.

Overall, then, I found that the impact of the 21st Century Public Servant research on UK local government has been extensive and that, for a small number of councils, the impact has been profound.

The relevance of the research has been a key factor. As one survey respondent put it; ‘the research has great resonance with us. We have embedded (or we are continuing to embed) the research in all areas of our activities as an organisation’. The range of activities where the research is being used alongside the number of councils that are using it for more than one thing points to its versatility and adaptability. This also suggests the potential for impact to keep growing in future; particularly if INLOGOV continue to disseminate, promote and develop the research.

To illustrate the degree of impact that the research can have, I’ll leave the last word to one of the survey respondents who simply said; ‘we are building it into our DNA’.

 

Dr Dave Mckenna is an Independent consultant specialising in public governance and scrutiny.  He helps councils and other public bodies with training, research and improvement work.  Website: www.publicgov.co.uk

 

 

How much informality is ‘just right’ in public services?

In our work on the 21stC Public Servant, we often grumble about the excessive formality of public service organisations that can hamper the scope to make changes and take risks.

Today I sat in a cafe hearing people at the table next to me being interviewed for social care work with a private company. I reflected on how much more formal that interview would have been if it had been for an NHS job or other public service employer.

“Checkered floor cafe, tables and chairs, reflection, patio umbrellas outside, Beaverton, Oregon, USA” byWonderlane is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The informality of a cafe interview sends a number of messages. It indicates that the interviewees’ privacy is of no value, since conversations about the right to work and people’s living arrangements were perfectly audible to me and other nearby tables.

Bleak encounters

It is suggestive of a precariousness to the work – the care agency apparently having nowhere better to do their recruitment than a cafe. For both sides there seemed a bleakness to the encounter – interviewees asked if there would be guaranteed hours (answer: no); the interviewer was quick to take on anyone who had had previous care experience, without any further discussion of their suitability for the role. Given that recruitment of staff is known to be a major concern for care agencies perhaps they couldn’t afford to be picky.

It was particularly poignant for me because I was part way through a day of research visits to interview people who received care services. Many of them are anxious about the quality of care they receive, and the high turnover of staff coming into their home to help with intimate personal care. The brevity of the interview process didn’t fill me with any confidence that these recruits would be any more likely to stay in the job.

Sticky People or Cafe People

The cafe recruitment process combines the worst of informality (e.g. lack of privacy) with the worst of formality (right to work checks, bank statements etc were poured over diligently). There was no evidence of the kinds of conversation that might help recruit what Neil Eastwood calls ‘sticky people‘, which take time to discover people’s values and aptitudes.

We need different sorts of conversations with people working in public services like social care that involve intensely personal encounters with people. Perhaps things are changing in parts of the sector. I saw a social care recruitment poster last week which had the headline ‘Are you a nice person?’ The toolkit that Skills for Care has developed on values-based recruitment is a step in the right direction.

Initiatives like these are often taken up by large companies: those with HR departments, and actual offices in which to undertake interviews. Given that much social care is delivered by small to medium organisations, we need to make sure the message is getting heard – even by those who recruit their staff in the corner of a cafe.

 

Facilitator of Joy – a new line on the JD for the 21stC Public Servant?

Catherine Needham

joy

Leaders need to see themselves as facilitators of joy say @helenbevan and others in a new blog for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. The blog encourages us to go beyond the older idea of looking for ‘joy in work’, to get to a point where joy IS work. They are writing about a health context, in which intense funding pressures and rising patient numbers must make joy quite elusive, so it is good to see their chirpy optimism and top tips for joy (put down your smart phone and talk to people being one).
In local government where the cuts are even deeper and the existential crisis more intense, joy feels a long way away. Nor is there much of it within universities, where anxieties about performance management intensify as the next research  assessment process gathers momentum. At a system level, we know that the strains across public services are intense.

And yet on an individual level many of us experience aspects of work that make us joyful: a thank you card from a student/patient/resident/boss; a buzzy session of sharing ideas with colleagues; a long term problem that we finally work out how to crack; a mentoring session with a new employee.

Could it be possible that joy can go from being an incidental side effect to being part of the system design as Helen Bevan and co-authors suggest? Could we recruit for joy? I don’t know what an environmental health office based on joy would feel like (a five star hygiene certificate for every fast food outlet?). But fostering a university research culture based on joy is a challenge I would like to get stuck into. A study of what makes an effective research culture highlighted a lot of attributes that feel a lot like joy; those research settings are places for curiosity, entrepreneurship, egalitarianism, nurture, cooperation. Maybe as leaders we need to know more about what joy feels like for colleagues and how to stop designing systems that squeeze joy to the edges.

Creative, courageous and innovative – the council workforce of tomorrow

Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow

outside-the-box

By Lucy Terry, Senior Researcher and Claire Mansfield, Head of Research, NLGN

Councils are changing. Prompted by the funding cuts of the last decade, they have had to transform. No longer just seen as service deliverers, they are becoming collaborators, place leaders, commissioning councils, commercial councils and cooperative councils.

But ambitious transformation plans can only be achieved through a workforce with the capabilities to make them a reality. The 21st Century Public Servant project has already demonstrated that a completely new set of skills and values are needed in local government today.  Local government needs a workforce that is collaborative, commercially savvy, able to cross boundaries and be flexible, creative, and empowered to make change.

But that is a lot to demand of any workforce. How can councils attract staff with these skills and competencies and what can they offer them in return?

Last year NLGN carried out a research project that spoke to the current local government workforce  (including a survey of 2,500 local government employees), interviewed HR directors and identified some of the most relevant cutting-edge working practices both in the UK and internationally.

We wanted to understand how councils can develop a workforce equipped to use these new skills and address new challenges. How can councils enable their staff to flourish and thrive, and how can they make themselves attractive to new employees? The final report Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow was published last month.

The most promising finding was that the greatest motivation to work in local government was the “public service ethos” – people wanted to make a difference to the community. But the workforce we surveyed also felt hampered by a hierarchical culture; by layers of management and slow decision making processes; and by managers who micro-manage, rather than lead.

This hardly marries with what councils need today: creativity, courageousness and innovation. Outside the Box makes the case for a non-hierarchical working culture that allows these qualities to thrive; a supportive and enabling environment which means employees can do what they came into local government to do – make a difference.

We call for a fundamental cultural change within local government to enable the new skills and qualities local government needs, as well as attracting in new talent to local government. The working culture needs to be front and centre of any ‘new deal’ for the local government workforce.

As well as transforming working culture, councils will also have to change their external profile.  HR directors told us that the greatest barrier to recruiting talent is the negative perception of local government. Councils are not seen as places for entrepreneurial, dynamic or ambitious employees and staff are all too often stereotyped as ‘jobsworths’. And while that description was probably never fair, it is particularly inaccurate for today’s workforce as they innovate their way through the funding cuts.

If councils are to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ it’s critical that they actively work to counteract this stereotype. A more outward-facing council with a focused recruitment strategy will be crucial to attract a diverse range of skills and experiences, including people who wouldn’t previously have chosen local government. Opening up the council building can make councils more visible to the public. Some councils such as Wakefield and Wiltshire are now open plan and integrate libraries or cafes into their buildings – getting people through the door other than to pay a bill.

Becoming much more outward-facing and ambitious about the potential of the workforce has the potential to make local government an exciting career choice for the next generation. Moreover, it means councils will be much better equipped to meet the considerable challenges facing them.

In partnership with the LGA, and supported by GatenbySanderson and PPMA, ‘Outside the Box: The Council Workforce of Tomorrow’ looks at the potential of workforce strategies to meet the strategic and operational challenges facing local government.

 

A 21st century public servant Christmas

xmas-picAs 2016 draws to an end INLOGOV would like wish Happy Christmas to all the inspirational public servants we have met and worked with over the past year. The work of INLOGOV and the Public Services Academy brings us into contact with a range of people dedicated to improving the lives of their citizens. These range from the graduate trainees who have just joined local government, to our part time Masters students, juggling full time, demanding jobs with gaining a qualification that will stand them in good stead for their future careers, the senior leaders who are working across organisations to develop innovative solutions to our most challenging ‘wicked issues’ and front line staff who continue to support residents in a variety of innovative and thoughtful ways, in spite of budget cuts.
This year we have been on the road a lot, talking to people about the 21st century public servant (and councillor) research. Reflecting on these conversations about how public servants need to be different in future, it strikes me that the one factor that the public servants we work with have in common is determination. Determination to gain a qualification, to make a difference, to gain new skills and develop new roles, with the end outcome to do the best for the people that live in their areas and need support from public services.
We have been particularly inspired by the way in which organisations have taken the 21st century public servant research and (in the words of an X factor judge) ‘made it their own’. In an attempt to travel the length and breadth of the country we have worked with organisations from Oldham to Cornwall, and from Suffolk to Cardiff. All have engaged with the challenge of creating a future workforce that will develop and deliver improved outcomes for residents.
To end the year on a festive, light hearted note we’d like to share the work that North East Lincolnshire council have been doing with the 21st century public servant concepts:

A 21st Century Public Servant Christmas

The System Architect has made sure the Christmas tree and decorations are all co-ordinated. The Resource Weaver has found all the gifts and stocked the Christmas larder. The Broker has worked out a suitable seating plan for the Christmas dinner. The Networker is in charge of the party games that get everyone involved. The Storyteller has written a ghost story to tell on Christmas Eve. The Commissioner is working towards the outcome of a happy Christmas for all. The Navigator is planning their new year’s resolutions and the Municipal Entrepreneur is thinking of ways to make next Christmas even more exciting!!

We wish you all a restful break, and a Happy New Year.

The Forgotten Importance of Government’s Workforce

By Howard Risher

risher-photo

Recently in  the US it has become apparent that government is largely ignoring the potential of its best resource to improve performance: its workforce. During the past 20 years, there has been a widening gulf between “people management” practices in the private and public sectors. Anyone who has a chance to interact with employees in a leading company would quickly appreciate they are talking to highly engaged and committed individuals. Those companies have adopted practices that reflect the old advertising slogan, “People are our most important asset.”

There is solid evidence to show the way employees are managed influences their performance. It is almost impossible to miss the new focus—the many lists of the “best places to work,” articles on employee engagement and books on high performance. The common goal is creating a positive work experience that gets the best out of employees. There is a list of the best federal places to work but nothing similar at the state or local level. Two independent surveys show workforce problems are the No. 1 management challenge. Election candidates frequently promise changes that would exacerbate the problems.

The challenge is multifaceted: the wave of retirements and loss of job knowledge, the low percentage of millennials interested in government careers, the pay freezes, cutbacks in training budgets, lack of advancement opportunities… I could go on. Gallup recently reported that low employee engagement levels in state and local government contribute to performance problems that cost $100 billion. This is not simply an HR issue.

The Two Perspectives of Performance

Last year, I had a reason to look closely at the websites for the 15 highest ranked public administration (PA) schools. The courses and faculty publications say a lot about the priorities: workforce concerns are rarely mentioned. For reasons that are not apparent in PA literature, government’s efforts to improve performance, as well as the research, have focused on high level concerns—executive development, strategic planning and technology. This is consistent with the “manage more like a business” argument and the longstanding goal of increasing efficiency. Too often, training for new managers includes only a cursory discussion of their responsibility for creating a productive work environment. Today there are two surprisingly separate groups that focus on “performance management.” One deals with management systems, strategy, metrics, KPIs, etc. The other focuses on employees, goal setting, competencies and feedback. Each has its experts, jargon and literature. One focuses on leaders and executives, the other on workforce issues.
For more than 20 years, the PA community has concentrated almost exclusively on the former as part of “new public management” and reinventing government. Agencies have invested heavily in business management practices but the problems continue. The HR community, in contrast, focuses on employees, although in the public sector the literature includes frequent reports arguing employees explicitly or implicitly are part of the problem. Few public employers would argue their people management practices are truly effective. Antiquated civil service systems continue to impede needed change.

Evidence from the Private Sector

That contrasts with the attention to workforce issues in the business world. In hindsight, this did not start as an HR initiative. The impetus for change was the 1990-91 recession, which prompted U.S. companies to look for ways to become more competitive in world markets. They eliminated layers of management along with bureaucratic practices, decentralized decision making and, in doing so, gave greater autonomy to employees. The business textbooks were rewritten, dropping old phrases like “span of control” and highlighting new ideas like empowerment.

I know this history because when I developed my first book in 1995, the phrase “high performance” was not in use but was the theme. In all of our exchanges, government was never discussed. The experience in the private sector is important. There is a wealth of resources that highlight proven practices, including the APA’s recently created website, Center for Organizational Excellence, which “enhance[s] the functioning of individuals, groups, organizations and communities through the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.” We know what contributes to a positive work experience and many of those practices could be adopted in government at minimal cost.

Government is People

Payroll, as well as employee-related expenses (e.g., training), are typically the largest controllable items in agency budgets. Despite that, employees and their performance have gotten very little attention. The potential for improved performance is surprisingly high; a meta-analysis of productivity studies once concluded changes in the work management paradigm can trigger 30-40 percent increases. Virtually every employee has untapped capabilities. This is a problem that can be solved but it will require leadership. We need a new “new public management,” one that recognizes, values and encourages workforce contributions. As I write this, The New York Times has posted the article, “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love.” When someone has a highly satisfying job, they look forward to coming to work each day. There was a time when that was true in government.

 

Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at h.risher@verizon.net.

 

This blog was originally published by the American Society for Public Administration’s PA Times blog

Being human

I made this point about shared humanity last week when I gave evidence to the Kirklees Democracy Commission. The Commission has been set up to do a ‘health check’ of local democracy in the area, and to work out how to ‘do democracy’ better.  Although the commission is focused on Kirklees, the questions it is asking about how to better connect councillors and councils to their communities have a much wider relevance.

I was reporting on findings from our recent 21st Century Councillor research. Of the various points I made, the one about shared humanity was the one that got the most interest and retweets. Similarly in our 21st Century Public Servant research, a lot of people latched on to our finding that’being human’ was a key attribute of effective public service workers.

What does this focus on humanity mean in practice? It means displaying honesty, empathy, humour and a willingness to learn when interacting with citizens. It means being aware that whilst today we might be wearing the badge of councillor or officer, in other parts of our lives we are citizens ourselves – we are not a breed apart.

Some public servants and councillors do this already. The police in particular have been quick to see the potential of Twitter as way to engage and entertain the public, as well as to fight crime.

If more councillors and officers are going to connect honestly and warmly with citizens, then managers (and party leaders) will need to have a sense of humour and a thick skin. Let’s look for those things when recruiting leaders, and help develop a culture of humanity in local government.