Headlines: March 29th, 2001

Public sector leadership is moving towards crisis and prompt action is needed stop the drift. This is the conclusion of a report by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit. The problem is not a decline in the quality of leadership, but a slowness to respond to the changing world. Leaders in the 21st century are facing demands to modernise public services and orient them more closely to the needs and wishes of customers. There are also higher expectations on the part of the general public, who expect public services to keep up with private ones. Other radical changes include increased opportunities, and requirements, for partnerships both across the public sector and with private and voluntary organizations and pressures to harness new technology and deliver government services electronically.Welcoming the report, Prime Minister Tony Blair called for action to strengthen and support leadership across the whole public sector.

The report is critical of the way public bodies are responding to the challenge of change. Too little attention is paid to the growing importance of leadership across organisational boundaries, or to learning between different sectors. The report authors found little evidence that the many leadership development initiatives and new leadership colleges are proving effective. There is little shared understanding of the qualities required for effective leadership in today’s public services and leadership theory is riven by conflicting interpretations. Leaders themselves often do not understand the reasons for their own effectiveness. At the corporate level there is a lack of basic information about leaders and leadership in the public sector. This includes data on career progression, turnover, wastage rates, and systematic tracking of the career moves of individuals.

The report’s authors acknowledge that there are no ready made solutions to address the leadership issue such as the wholesale import of leaders from the private sector or big increases in pay. They argue that to achieve sustained change there must be action at every level from leaders themselves, from those to whom they are accountable, from human resource directors and those shaping public services at all levels of government. They recommend that a better balance should be struck between the freedom to lead and the ability to hold public service leaders to account for theirperformance. This should be combined with a more vigorous approach to recruitment and selection by individual public service organisations, such as schools and NHS Trusts, and better marketing of the opportunities the public sector offers. There should also be more intensive development of
leaders and potential leaders, drawing on best practice, and with a stronger emphasis on joining-up across sectors.

The Cabinet Office is urged to take the recommendations forward using its existing forums – the Public Sector Employers Forum and the Public Sector Leadership Development Forum.