Public sector reforms threatened by poor leadership

Jun 17 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Public sector managers have delivered a damming assessment of the quality of their senior management. Two thirds feel that their leadership is so poor that it threatens to derail the government’s public sector reform agenda.

Initiative overload and an obsession with standards, targets and procedures is also undermining imaginative management, according to the survey of 1,900 public sector managers carried out by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

‘Leading Change in the Public Sector: Making the Difference’ reveals that only one in three middle and junior managers rate the leadership demonstrated by their most senior management team highly, with the remainder describing it as either low or medium quality.

Managers who took part in the survey complained of a ‘blame culture’, where all too often priorities are blurred and targets are the ‘raison d’ętre’. Leaders need to foster a culture of trust, they said, with increased focus on customers.

And time and again they attacked the current emphasis on standards, targets and procedures as a barrier to imaginative management and leadership.

As one manager said, “we’re not going to get better just by getting better at measuring performance.”

Initiative overload is common: six out of ten managers cite the sheer pressure of work while almost half say insufficient finance and the time-consuming and bureaucratic nature of such initiatives are the key barriers to implementation of public sector reform.

One particular area where public sector leaders have failed to deliver is ‘clarity of vision’. Only one in three of the managers surveyed said that they saw it demonstrated in reality.

“Leadership development is crucial for effective change,” said Mary Chapman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute. “What’s more, our research shows that where there is high priority given to leadership development, net employee satisfaction and motivation is up by one quarter over the past three years.

“By contrast, where a low priority is given to leadership development, the overall net change in employee satisfaction is down by one third.”

The survey also found worrying signs that an enduring ‘command culture’ within

public sector management continues to undermining efforts to deliver a reform agenda based on more flexible ways of working and thinking. Many procedures are still in place that restrict the freedom of frontline managers to take risks and develop new solutions and few delegate real authority or budgetary control..

As a result, fewer than half of managers surveyed recognise ‘partnership working’ as a necessary public leadership skill, while less than a quarter appreciate the importance of developing ‘political’ skills. A mere one in five felt that ‘innovation’ was important.

But where responsibility is devolved to give managers greater engagement with the local community and the public greater direct involvement in service delivery, those involved reported higher levels of individual enthusiasm and satisfaction from 'making the difference'.

Sir Michael Bichard, Rector of the London Institute and former permanent secretary for the Department for Education, who chaired the research advisory panel, called for those developing policy and targets to listen to the people directly engaged in the provision of services.

“Responsibility for driving up standards should ideally lie closest to those responsible for delivery,” he said. “Solutions should be designed and maintained by the professionals themselves.”