Public sector leadership

Over the next four weeks, Alexander Stevenson will be exploring what it means to be a leader in the public sector and how you can develop your own leadership skills and challenge others to do the same.


The two reasons why public sector leadership is different – and so difficult to do well


It is easy enough to find leadership advice. But what about leadership advice specific to the public sector?  Virtually all the general management and leadership books you will see on airport bookshelves or articles in newspapers and magazines are based on private sector case studies and written primarily for a private sector audience.  This bias is perfectly illustrated on Amazon where management books are a sub-category of the ‘Business & Investing’ section.  In Amazon’s world there is no such thing as a non-private sector management or leadership book.


This wouldn’t matter if leadership was the same across sectors.  And in some ways it is. All leaders do the same tasks. They inspire people, develop strategies, write plans, set targets, recruit people, deliver projects, monitor progress and assess performance.  But two characteristics of working in a public sector environment make the approaches to every one of these tasks very different.


The lack of a single, easy to measure success criterion


The private sector can frame virtually every decision it makes by asking the simple question: will this make us more or less profitable? There is no such question in the public sector. Does the public sector exist to make us happier, wealthier, more influential, fairer, safer?  Probably all these things and more. Not only is it hard to pick a particular outcome but often it is hard to measure effectively, particularly if you are trying to assess something as nebulous as happiness or fairness.  The absence of a simple way of measuring success complicates almost all the management processes outlined already, particularly the process of developing a strategy and setting targets.


Democratic accountability


Public sector leaders live with the knowledge that every decision, every expenditure, every measure of performance and even every recruitment process or supplier contract is liable to external scrutiny. This scrutiny, whether by media, the public or opposition politicians is likely to be challenging, negative and occasionally unfair.  Again, this has some substantial implications:


  • The need to show workings: The public sector is often criticised for its red tape but red tape is inevitable given the public scrutiny. The managerial challenge is how to deal with it without compromising the pace and quality of delivery


  • Risk and innovation: As many NHS managers have found out, the rewards for success in a democratically accountable environment may not be that high, but the penalties for failure can be enormous. In such a culture, it can be a challenge for public sector managers to ensure that their organisations are prepared to take proportionate risks and be innovative


In my next articles I will set out how public sector leaders can deal with these challenges.


Alexander Stevenson is the author of ‘The Public Sector: Managing the Unmanageable’, and ‘The Public Sector Fox’ which is available to NHS Leadership Academy readers with a £5 discount here (discount code: MANAGER).

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