Four techniques that only public sector leaders can use

Posted by: Alexander Stevenson - Posted on:

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. You can find the first instalment here. 


The American evangelist Billy Graham would always follow the same formula in his speeches. Having won the audience’s attention and favour with a few self-deprecating jokes, he would list all the reasons why their lives might be miserable. And then, once everybody was thoroughly depressed, he would pause, look up and say: ‘But there is a better way.’


If last week’s piece about how hard it can be to lead in the public sector depressed you, I hope that this week’s can lift you up, albeit in less spiritual ways than Billy Graham.  Public sector leaders do face significant challenges but they also have some terrific techniques to help them deal with these challenges – and many of these are only available to those who work in the public sector.


Here are the four most important:


  1. Fully exploit the limitless comparative data. Almost every aspect of management can be made easier by having access to timely, accurate information about what your peer group is doing. In this respect the public sector manager has a sensational advantage – there is no competitive barrier to sharing this information between public sector bodies. Imagine how excited Tesco would be at the prospect of having unfettered access to every detail of the way in which Sainsbury’s operates. But often in the public sector the data is patchy and the analysis (perhaps understandably) half-hearted. Does every healthcare manager understand the processes, the costs and the performance of their peers? Is this understanding embedded in how they manage their organisation? The potential of having this data is a managerial windfall which should be fully exploited.


  1. Link people vividly to the ultimate impact of what they do. The public sector exists to help people and make our society a better place to live, no more clearly than in the NHS. But often this positive mission can be obscured for people working in it, either because it is swamped by the day to day hurly-burly of management or because their particular part of the public sector is concerned with enforcement. Thus prison officers spend their time with prisoners rather than with the victims of families or with ex-offenders who have gone on to lead fulfilling lives. Bringing people as close as possible to the good they are doing can be very motivating. It can also be very useful as the knowledge gained can help inform better decision making.  For frontline healthcare professionals this happens by default. Doctors and nurses can vividly see the impact they have every day on the people they treat. But it can be harder for managers to create the time to spend with patients and their families.  Giving yourself and your staff the time to do this can be a vital management tool to help people do better jobs and feel happier about doing them.


  1. Gather soft feedback on the soft stuff. Next to the clean financial accountability of the private sector the public sector can look like a scruffy cousin. The public sector response to this has been to develop increasing numbers of targets, some of which are helpful but many are not. A more sensible approach is to recognise that much of the impact the public sector has is numerically unquantifiable and to invest time in gathering soft feedback – i.e. ask people what they think – rather than in devising and monitoring complex targets. This is particularly important in healthcare, where the quality of the service depends on millions of complex transactions which occur daily between human beings (the staff and the patients and their families), many of which are impossible to capture meaningfully. Of course some statistics are critical but the best way of understanding how well the service is being delivered is to ask these human beings regularly and rigorously what they think of it.


  1. Be proactive! It can be harder to get things done in the public sector, often for very understandable and legitimate reasons. When you are spending public money, processes rightly need to be followed. When you are making decisions which are vulnerable to public challenge it can be tempting to delay or pass them up the chain of command. The impressive public sector managers I know all strike me as people who were driven to achieve things, were therefore adept at finding ways of getting things done and, crucially, were comfortable with making decisions.


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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