Build or burn?

Leadership in the Public Sector

Most businesspeople regard working in the public sector as being a second-order challenge but I believe management of the public sector is one of the great challenges for the next generation, comparable to the turnaround in business leadership achieved during the eighties and the Thatcher revolution.

In full flow during an argument, it’s tempting to claim anyone could do a better job at running the country than ‘this shower of idiots’ but it turns out we can’t.  One piece of evidence I find compelling is the repeated failure of successful business types to make the transition to even quite modest roles in government, and the embarrassingly weak conclusions of some of their reports on how to improve the efficiency of government.  Leadership in the public sector presents a very a specific set of challenges.

Before considering these challenges, let’s knock on the head any myth about service in the public sector being in any way qualitatively different from a commercial service.  In all my personal and professional dealings with people at all levels in types of public organisations, I’ve never noticed anything remotely like a public-service ethos, no hint at all of a higher purpose, just people doing their job, like everyone else.  This applies equally to nurses, social workers, bin men and senior civil servants.  I’m willing to bet that even soldiers on the front line, the most extreme form of public service I can imagine, think in terms of esteem of their colleagues and ‘doing a job’ than anything else.  Earning a living by working for a charity isn’t any different from any other form of earning a living.

If we allow that the people providing a public service have no intrinsically different values or motivations from those providing a private service, we do nevertheless have to acknowledge that the environment in which private and public enterprises operate is completely different.

In a private business, the ‘company’ is its own little self-contained world.  Yes, it has to worry about its customers, its shareholders, its local community and public image, but it’s not obliged to worry about those things, it does them because it wishes to survive and thrive.  To a large extent, the corporation is in control of how it interacts with its stakeholders.  It has very clear boundaries with its environment.  Not so, a public enterprise.

A university is the closest example I can think of to a borderless organisation.  It sits in the heart of multiple communities, each of which might appropriate the university as their own, and many of which might be completely unaware of each other.

I was an undergraduate for three years and not once did the management of the organisation ever encroach into my consciousness.  The closest I got to the administration of the organisation was trying to obtain a parking permit.  Since then, I’ve sat on the Finance and General Purposes Committees of a university, I’ve signed research contracts with universities, benchmarked University overheads, discussed grant income and construction projects with professors and vice-chancellors.  When I was a student, I wasn’t in the least aware of these things going on and, even if I was, I wouldn’t have been in the slightest interested.  Yet I feel quite a strong personal attachment to the place.

Universities have research professors who feel allegiance only to their research; students who feel allegiance only to their career; parents, schools and lecturers who feel allegiance to the degree courses being taught; members of the public who visit the art galleries, night classes and attend summer courses; any number of sports clubs that feel allegiance to their sport; businesses interested in buying know-how and consultancy; politicians  interested only in economic development; then there are the  University managers trying to run the place, climb up in league tables, and elicit donations.  I’ve worked late into the evening at a University and found myself walking through street parties to a car park busier than it was at any point during the day; passed Tesco delivery vans dropping off shopping to hungry students.

You try running a business in the middle of all that, and then tell me that leading in the public sector is a pushover.

And if you think a University is a special case, think about your most challenging KPI.  Maybe, it’s something quite mundane line customer order fulfilment percentage.  Now imagine you’re running a hospital and the KPIs are measured in deaths, and you get the sense of the different scale of impact.  And then imagine a politician announces on national television that from next month some service you can’t afford and are not ready to provide will now be freely available from your hospital.

While there is nothing intrinsically different about the staff providing the service, the open, borderless – in other words, ‘public’ – nature of the public sector organisations is very different and very demanding of leaders.

I’ve noticed in the last 5 years, a marked uptick in the general quality of management and leadership in the public sector compared to the past.  And the willingness to remove non-performing leaders, which is the hard edge to the same coin. This is good, because we all need them.

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