Features: April 8th, 2003

Leadership and Values – The Key to Delivery?

By David Panter

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

Delivery all too often means outputs or, at best, outcomes – little attention is paid to ‘how’. In particular, how the workforce is supported and developed to aspire to constant service improvement. Equally, the need to be seen to be delivering can cause an organization to spin off at a tangent so, for example, rather than focusing attention on key services, it can sometimes divert energy from the things that matter most. Fascination with delivering new initiatives can often be at the expense of delivering basic services.

In Brighton, this was exemplified by the inability to deliver satisfactory levels of rubbish collection and street cleaning whilst at the same time embracing many of the new initiatives like Sure Start, Healthy Living Centres, Health Action Zones and so on. Yet rubbish collection is possibly the only service affecting everyone – residents, tourists and business people in the City, and if we can’t be trusted to pick black bags up in a timely and effective manner, what more complex things can we be trusted to do? By the summer of 2001 we had given notice to the City’s third private sector contractor for this service. Service levels were way below minimum acceptable standards with some five to six hundred letters of complaint being personally addressed to me as Chief Executive each week.

Staff welfare critical to delivery

Rubbish collection and street cleaning are not generally regarded as attractive, satisfying work. In moving the service to and between external suppliers little regard had been paid to the staff and their well-being. As a result of the Council’s history of working with three separate providers, 283 staff were between them, on 38 different sets of terms and conditions. Of these 283, just over a quarter, had legal pension arrangements. It was no wonder then that staff were agitated about proposals on how to implement modernization and performance improvements.

Delivery is about how services are provided on the ground. Critical to this is how the workforce is treated and supported. To begin to turn things round and improve rubbish collection and street cleaning it seemed important, therefore to bring the service back in house. This was, of course, potentially difficult in the absence of a Best Value Review that demonstrated the benefits of this option. However, having been through a further tendering process and due diligence exercise, we were able to reassure councillors that, by applying attention to leadership and management style as well as to some fundamental staff welfare concerns, the situation could be remedied.

Some seven months later their willingness to support the move of rubbish collection back in-house has been rewarded. Complaints addressed to the Chief Executive about the service now number only some half-dozen at most a week (down a hundred fold) and the workforce now receive some 50-60 written compliments each week. Staff satisfaction surveys show that staff are pleased by the changes and motivated to make further improvements, and the subsequent Best Value inspection, whilst setting out clear areas for improvement, recognizes that the situation has been turned round and considerable progress made.

Process and the values key

This short service example holds the key to how Central Government needs to address the delivery agenda. Rather than focusing on outputs, there is a need to focus on outcomes and on the process by which these are achieved. This, in turn will mean getting back to some basic issues, not least of which are the values expected within the public sector and, more particularly, the values of public sector leaders.

Research has shown organizations that best deliver improved services are those which – regardless of the sector they are in – have a clear sense of purpose or mission, are clear about what they expect of managers within the organization, listen to their staff and treat them with respect.

Qualitative measures as important a ‘hard’ targets

In Brighton we surveyed all eight and a half thousand staff, asking them what they expect of their supervisor or manager, managers in the directorate, the Chief Executive and elected members. This has been used to develop a set of behaviours that are expected throughout the Council and which are used as the basis for management development and support activities. In itself, this is not rocket science. Yet is has been the key to success in Brighton and is often undervalued elsewhere in public services. If the delivery agenda is to be advanced at a national level the Government needs to add to the current basket of measures used as incentives to public sector organizations and managers to pay attention to leadership and style and values. In the Health Service, for example, ‘hard’ targets around budget and waiting times are all very well and important, but if the service is ever to achieve consistently high standards across the country, these need to be balanced, with attention to style and values, in a way that they still are not in most of the service.

Accounting for and recognizing the contribution that leadership style and values make, when using an assessment framework that is still largely audit and paper based, is not easy and attention will need to be given to this if the Government seriously wants to move public services forward. Brighton’s Performance Indicators from two years ago, and current performance against them tell one story – the motivation, enthusiasm and commitment of its staff today tell another. One is the story of where we have been, the other is where we are going, and is a positive endorsement of change. The inspectors recognize this but have no real way of reflecting it in their report. By and large, you get what you measure. The Government would do well, therefore, to find a workable way of including these qualitative measures in their assessment.