Doing more with less: the challenges of public sector leadership

Posted in: Public services

Marcial Boo, Chief Executive of The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Once upon a time, we were prepared to wait – and to make do. No longer. We all now expect immediate access to anything we want, and to same-day deliveries. If we get poor customer service, we’re straight onto Twitter to tell our friends, and we expect an instant response from the company concerned.

It’s all very well that we want this from Amazon and Uber. But should we expect these same standards from the NHS, the police and other public services too? In fact, our demands are even greater; we expect that public service leaders will demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and value for money, and be subject to public criticism if they are thought to fail. Not only this, but we ask that all this is accomplished without raising taxes. This is what we expect of public services today – and rightly so.

In this demanding world, public sector managers need new skills – and this was the theme of an Institute for Policy Research (IPR) research seminar that I participated in last week, along with IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce and the Dean of the University of Bath School of Management Professor Veronica Hope Hailey.

One of the recurring motifs of our discussion was the sheer breadth of skills required by public sector managers. It is no longer enough to be good at strategy-making, planning and financial management. The modern public sector manager must also know how to manage contracts, to communicate through new media channels, and to draw on the expertise of a wide range of people and organisations. And with constantly reducing budgets. It’s not at all easy.

As a result, public sector managers need to learn resilience (to deal with the flak and keep going despite the odds), and to keep a healthy perspective by taking time out to see things from others’ points of view. They have to take a breather sometimes too. Perhaps most importantly, they need to retain their commitment to making our society a better place – something that was sometimes forgotten in the drive for central performance targets.

In our book, The Public Sector Fox, Alexander Stevenson and I describe how modern public sector managers from local and central government, the NHS, police and elsewhere – including academia – can learn the skills they need to survive in this demanding modern world for public services. The advice and tips in the book draw on our decades of experience, ranging from managing counter-terrorism programmes to regulating MPs’ expenses.

Work in the public sector is demanding. But it can be immensely rewarding too. To make our public services more successful, we must ensure that its managers have the skills they need to work effectively with limited budgets, high expectations, a sceptical media, and multiple interested parties, while meeting the needs of everyone who wants to live in a safe, clean and healthy society. It could hardly be more important.

Marcial Boo's book The Public Sector Fox is available here.

If you missed this IPR Research Seminar, you can sign up for our next one – a discussion of former COO of HM Government Stephen Kelly's experience rewiring the civil service – here.

Posted in: Public services


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