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Solace blog

4th May 2017

Understanding the public service leadership challenges

The challenges

The public service leadership challenges of cuts, confusion, and change have become the norm. The basic elements needed to lead through this ever-changing landscape are clarity over direction; adequate support to adopt change (preferably in the form of budgets for resources and development) and positive consequences for delivering the change without damaging services.

There is now a growing realisation amongst public sector leaders that each of these elements is irrevocably threatened: confusion has replaced clarity; cuts have replaced adequate support and negative consequences have replaced any semblance of positivity.

For too long, individual leaders have sought the answers unilaterally, while the pressure to retain accountability mounts daily. They have done this while struggling to have influence that the right things get done within an evolving democratic Political process.

Individual leaders cannot be expected to have all the answers. The solution requires whole system leadership. This means that learning to collaborate is essential, both within organisations and between partners in other public organisations, and in the private and third sectors.

Evidence-based recommendations

Recent research supports the need for leaders to balance collective leadership and accountability with changes in the Political process:

In The 21 Century Public Servant (https://21stcenturypublicservant.wordpress.com/), the University of Birmingham asked questions around what is the range of different roles and requirements on those responsible for delivery 21st-century public services and what are the support and training requirements for these roles. In a 2016 report, the Institute for Government undertook a study on the impact of elected regional mayors on ministerial and local accountability, reporting that “success of local collaboration and innovation will depend on the strength of local accountability.”

Leadership: all you need to know, (Pendleton and Furnham, Palgrave, 2012) suggests that individual leaders cannot be expected to have all the answers. Leadership requires strategic focus, operational focus and a focus on developing relationships. Leaders are probably strong in one or two of these and very rarely all three. The answer is of course to develop collective leadership where the top team has access to all these capabilities.

This evidence points to the need for public sector leaders to understand more deeply their own leadership strengths and development areas and consider how to build collective leadership to face the challenges of cuts, confusion, and change.

Supporting leaders to rise to the challenge

In 2013, in association with the LGA and Skills for Government, Solace published Asking the right questions following consultation and a number of interviews with serving CXs to understand the key challenges they faced and the skills and behaviours they believed were required by their peers and those aspiring to such roles.

Working with CMdeltaConsulting (http://cmdeltaconsulting.com/), Solace have now adapted the thinking from both sets of research to suit a broader leadership population and develop collective accountability for public sector leadership – the Leading in Context Framework

The framework can be accessed by individual leaders taking a free self-assessment diagnostic questionnaire, available here (http://lsdt.solace.org.uk/). The tool works by presenting you with 30 statements relating to your experience at work. Once you have selected the responses that most closely represent your experience or usual way of working, you are immediately presented with a brief report that shows your strengths and development areas against the Leading in Context Framework

Next steps

We can build a solution to the current challenges together. Using the free diagnostic questionnaire and report, individual leaders can deepen their own understanding of their leadership strengths and development areas, build a shared understanding of the leadership challenges and perhaps increase their collective accountability to develop as leadership teams and across multi-agency partnerships.

By Trudy Birtwell, Head of Leadership and Organisational Development at Solace and Jeremy Lewis, Solace Associate and MD at CMdeltaConsulting.