Clear and focused leadership at middle and top levels is vital for the improvement of public services says the Audit Commission. In a guide to managing improvement ‘Performance Breakthroughs’ it sets out reasons for failed attempts to do better and describes ways in which performance breakthroughs have been achieved. The Guide is based on research in 12 organisations drawn from local government, the health service and the emergency services over a period of four months.The Commission quotes examples of leadership failures which stifle attempts at improvement. Some leaders are not interested in improvement. They say the right things in public about the need to manage performance but do not transmit any enthusiasm for it to staff. They do not translate the many and complex demands from the outside world into a clear direction that makes sense for staff. They fail to take tough decisions about services and resources. They are unclear about the problems that new systems are seeking to solve. Where leaders display these weaknesses little is likely to change.
The Commission analysed performance breakthroughs and found eight areas which had been addressed to bring success. They discovered that a common thread running through each breakthrough was the focus and doggedness that people showed. Effective leaders challenge the status quo both by insisting that the current system cannot remain and by offering clear ideas about superior alternatives. Leaders and ‘champions’ are needed at all levels in an organization. In healthy organisations leadership is felt to be shared throughout the organisation rather than belonging to just one group of people at the top.