Features: September 13th, 2003

Leading Change in the Public Sector: Making a Difference

Survey Findings from The Chartered Management Institute

This research project provides a reality check among almost 1,900 public sector managers, mostly at middle and junior level, as they face the daily pressures of the public reform agenda. They have shared their attitudes to, and opinions of, current leadership performance in the public sector. It follows on from a major study into the nature of leadership in UK organisations carried out in 2001 by the Chartered Management Institute in association with the think-tank Demos, on behalf of the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership. In that report Leadership: the challenge for all? the quality of leadership in UK organisations did not receive high ratings, and public sector organisations received the lowest rating of all.

The new project was designed to examine in more detail the reasons behind the low ratings given to the quality of public sector leadership and to identify the barriers to achieving effective reform. Its primary objectives were to identify and examine the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of public sector managers in terms of:

The extent of the influence of a unique ethos, value system and environment on leadership attributes and structures in the public sector

The impact of performance improvement initiatives in the public sector

The key attributes sought in public sector leaders and measuring the extent to which they are demonstrated

The extent of development opportunities for potential public sector leaders

Research method

The main focus of the project is a comprehensive quantitative survey among a sample of Chartered Management Institute members drawn from those currently employed in:

Central government

Local government



Armed Forces (Army, Navy, RAF)

Fire service


Its aim is to provide a different dimension from other case studies and structural analyses for understanding public sector leadership issues.

1,890 practising public sector managers replied to a postal survey sent to a stratified random sample of Institute members in November 2002. The quantitative findings were then complemented by a series of 32 detailed personal interviews carried out by telephone with individual managers in January / February 2003.

Project context

The public sector is highly diverse in character, governance and size. Its boundaries have changed in recent years and will undoubtedly change again as a steadily stronger consumer culture, rising living standards and a more diverse society lead to greater expectations of responsiveness, reliability and accessibility. As in the private sector, public organisations face pressures to adapt and innovate to keep up with the best performers. Nonetheless some features clearly distinguish it from the private sector – the political context, funding arrangements, lack of market competition, the pressures to collaborate a cross different organisations and the ethos of public service. Reform of the public services is not a new idea. Nor is private sector involvement. Governments have in the past implemented a variety of reforms, including privatisation of nationalised industries and the establishment of the Next Steps agencies under Margaret Thatcher, as well as the initiation of the Citizen’s Charter and the extension of market testing and contracting under John Major. During his first term, Tony Blair, launched the Modernising Government programme, while his most recent paper Reforming our public services: principles into practice ( March 2002), identified the following four underpinning principles of re form:

Establishing a national framework of standards and accountability for the delivery of high quality services and effective community leadership

Within this framework devolution to local councils to encourage diversity and creativity giving them the freedom they need to respond to, and meet the needs of, their communities

Building local capacity in recognition of the need for flexibility at the frontline to exploit the opportunities the Government is opening up, and to deliver improved services and effective leadership

More choice for customers with access to an alternative supplier where performance falls below acceptable standards .

Scope of the report

Leadership is a complex and contested subject that can be interpreted in many ways. We have found that people tend to mix their perceptions of the concept of leadership as a specific role in an organisational process, with the characteristics of leadership as displayed by individuals. This survey looks at these various dimensions of leadership.

The first section deals with leadership as an organisational process and the macro-climate in terms of the specific public ethos and environment affecting behaviours and values.

The second section explores the specific improvement tools and performance initiatives that are being used across public service organisations as the agents for leading change.

The third section explores leadership as a set of individual characteristics and skills. It examines the micro-climate of leadership through the lens of the followers and those who have firsthand experience of public sector leadership. It also identifies how managers at all levels can be developed to become effective change agents.

Key Findings and Conclusions

Positive impact

Nearly six in ten managers report major reforms in the past three years that have directly improved service delivery.

Emerging public sector leadership

Clarity of vision (66 per cent), integrity (52 per cent) and sound judgement (50 per cent) are the key personal attributes sought from public leaders by their followers. However only about 30 per cent of respondents see these behaviours demonstrated within their own organisation

There is a pressing need for public sector managers to develop the ability to build and manage effective relationships both with politicians and a cross a diverse range of organisations. The research shows that still less than 50 per cent recognise partnership working as a key public leadership skill, while under a quarter (23 per cent) appreciate the importance of developing skills to manage the political dimension.

Managers in the survey identify communication skills, engaging employees with the vision and creating an enabling culture, as the top three skills they expect of public leaders in general. Yet only a third can see these skills in their own top team. Delivering joined-up solutions and working smarter not harder, means that leaders need more than ever to re affirm workplace commitment to creation of public value. People are more inclined to support reform that they help create themselves, while resisting that which is forced upon them.

Lack of creativity and innovation

The lack of creativity and innovation perceived within top teams and line managers is compounded by the low ratings given to leading innovation as a desirable skill in public sector leaders (only 20 per cent of managers included innovation as important). The reform agenda will be impeded if leaders and managers and more flexible ways of working and thinking.

Many respondents refer to the emphasis on standards, targets and procedures as a barrier to imaginative management and leadership. The tensions must be resolved between the need for greater creativity and modernisation and the degree of regulation required to improve standards and quality.

Frontline exposure creates spark for better morale

Citing challenges of inadequate resources and manpower, issues of work-life balance and increased responsibilities, nearly four in ten public sector managers report that employee satisfaction and motivation has shown a decrease over the past three years.

However, those who experience greater engagement with the local community and who have had direct public involvement in service delivery, reported higher levels of individual enthusiasm and satisfaction from “making the difference” .

Devolving accountabilities and managerial

Despite promises of more local autonomy, around one in five managers feel their power to influence political decisions has lessened since 1999. Many organisations have devolved responsibilities, but too few distribute real autonomy authority or budgetary control. Many procedures are still in place that restrict the freedom of frontline managers to take risks and develop new solutions.

Long term investment in development pays dividends

The research findings show a significant positive relationship between the organisational priority given to leadership development and the level of employee motivation and satisfaction. Where a low priority was given to leadership development the overall net change in employee satisfaction over the past three years is minus 33. In contrast, where there is high priority given to leadership development, the net change in employee satisfaction is plus 23.

Leadership development priorities

The survey reveals that only 33 per cent of public sector managers rate the leadership demonstrated by their most senior management team as high quality, with two thirds reporting either low or medium quality leadership. They were more positive however about the abilities of their own line manager, with 44 per cent being rated highly.

Although a wide and varied range of training activities is taking place, the majority of managers perceive a low priority being placed on leadership development in their organisation.

Only a quarter of respondents can claim their organisational budget for developing leaders is adequate, and only half of Chief Executives report that they have a personal development plan in place.

Organisations are still tending to rely on traditional and formalised methods of developing their leaders, whereas effective methods include those which focus on the impact of individual behaviours and which build in time for reflection and feedback.

Performance improvement

A wide and varied range of initiatives is in place, particularly Investors in People, ISO 9001 and EFQM, but initiative overload is common. Managers identify the key barriers to implementation as sheer pressure of work (63 per cent), insufficient finance (46 per cent) and the time consuming/ bureaucratic nature of such approaches (46 per cent).

Improvement programmes are also perceived by many working within the public sector as overlapping and contradicting each other. There is a pressing need to prioritise and clarify outcomes, while at the same time accepting that initiatives are no substitute for a compelling organisational vision.

The key benefit of successful performance initiatives is an enhanced focus on client needs (cited by 57 per cent of managers). Here the research also provides an insight into future priorities. Organisations need to focus on developing practical frameworks that place service users and local citizens at the centre of the change agenda.


Building leadership capacity within organisations

Every organisation within the public sector needs to review and examine our key finding that effective leadership development is the key to leading effective change.

Organisations need to do more to identify opportunities for leadership which are not tied to formal management positions. Many may have missed the chance to give people practice and confidence through managing specific projects, or leading processes, with the appropriate recognition and rewards .

Leaders themselves must prioritise their own on-going learning and personal development, and make such learning a part of the example they set to their followers.

Developing public sector leadership skills

Greater priority needs to be given to developing leaders with the capacity to manage the political dimension. They need an ability to see and communicate the big picture, make connections, be credible with different groups and broker relevant political and strategic relationships. Effective routes include mentoring and working across differentenvironments.

Rewards for creativity and innovation need to be developed, particularly where managers have been stifled by public sector structures and regulations. Rewards alongside greater devolution of responsibilities and accountabilities for risk will encourage innovative solutions to local problems.

Greater public involvement requires the capacity for open communication, consultation and dialogue with service users and citizens in general. This new requirement must be included within both development and evaluation activities.

A shared agenda

More value could be achieved from the specific leadership initiatives across the public sector by learning to work and develop together and by sharing knowledge and experiences. Managers within central Government have an important role in co-ordinating and supporting best practice and local initiatives.

Increased public scrutiny and sustained media attention create extra pressures on leaders responsible for setting and achieving targets. To counter unrealistic expectations, those developing policy and targets need to reconnect with the frontline and listen to those directly engaged in the provision of services. Responsibility for driving up standards should ideally lie closest to those responsible for delivery, and solutions should be designed and maintained by the professionals themselves.

There must be a revitalisation of the values agenda associated with a commitment to public service and the concept of professional responsibility. Authority needs to be distributed throughout organisations so that all employees have the freedom and are trusted to make a difference. Government at all levels, professional institutions and those responsible for training and development share an obligation to take this forward .


The Chartered Management Institute and the authors wish to acknowledge the financial support and advice provided by the sponsors. The Institute would also like to thank Sir Michael Bichard who chaired the project’s Advisory Panel, and his fellow members, for their invaluable guidance, contributions and support which have all helped in bringing this research to fruition.

Project sponsors

Department for Education and Skills

Defence Leadership Centre

Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government

National College for School Leadership

The Metropolitan Police Service

The Training Group Defence Agency