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Leading change in the public sector: making a difference


Petra Cook from the Chartered Management Institute looks at
leading change in the public sector.


Challenges of modernisation
Running public services is no longer about managing the status quo – it is about developing leaders at all levels. They need to be equipped to manage modernisation during a time of rising expectations and often-conflicting demands from both government and consumers.

The role of effective management and leadership in improving delivery of public services is now a top priority given the direct links between leadership and the quality of service provided to all members of society.

Poor ratings for public sector leadership
Popular media mantras often convey a dismal picture of public sector leadership and plummeting levels of employee motivation and morale. Indeed, the Institute’s leadership research in 2001, demonstrated that while the overall quality of leadership in the UK is not rated highly, public sector leadership received the lowest ratings.

Latest research into public sector leadership
The Institute’s latest research report “Leading Change in the Public Sector: Making the Difference” (to download the summary see: addresses why so few followers rate their leaders highly, and explores the qualities and characteristics most sought after in public leaders. Based on survey responses from 1,890 public sector managers and 30 in-depth interviews, the research explores what can be done to improve the quality of public sector leadership.

The answer could be viewed as a simple formula:

Leadership development = higher leadership ratings + increased motivation

The key findings demonstrated that where leadership development is a high organisational priority, there are more likely to be structures in place that recognise the commitment and contribution of employees, and consequently the quality of leadership is rated more highly. There is also a strong positive relationship between the organisational priority given to leadership development and the level of employee motivation and satisfaction.

What are the relevant leadership attributes for the public sector?
Clarity of vision (66 per cent), integrity (52 per cent) and sound judgement (50 per cent) are the key personal attributes sought from public leaders by their followers. However only about 30 per cent of respondents see these behaviours demonstrated within their own organisation.

Developing a new public sector skillset
Managing the politics
There is a pressing need for public sector managers to develop the ability to build and manage effective relationships both with politicians and across a diverse range of organisations. The research shows that still less than 50 per cent recognise partnership working as a key public leadership skill, while under a quarter (23 per cent) appreciate the importance of developing skills to manage the political dimension.

Change managementChange management approaches, based around principles more conducive to greater devolution and distributed powers, which use leadership, communication and persuasion to change attitudes and gain consent, are not yet being used as extensively as they could be.

Delivering joined-up solutions and working smarter not harder, means that leaders need more than ever to reaffirm workplace commitment to creation of public value. People are more inclined to support reform that they help create themselves, while resisting that which is forced upon them.

Unleashing creativity and innovation
The Institute’s research also detects a lack of recognition of the importance of creativity and innovation. There is still a residual obsession with the management of resources and political protocols, which runs counter to a culture that values creativity and new approaches.

The untapped sources of innovation are those who deliver frontline services. Clearly frontline managers need more freedom to use their initiative and common sense to explore new diverse ways of delivering services, but they are still often restricted by procedures that are too prescriptive.

Pathways to effective development
To use what is now an old cliché in the training world - no one size fits all in terms of leadership development. Across government there is now a plethora of leadership development initiatives. New leadership centres are being set up across most sectors, and the Centre for Excellence in Leadership ( was most recently launched for the FE sector at the beginning of October.

Although there are already many others such as:
National College for School Leadership
HomeDefence Leadership Centre
NHS Leadership College

This is to name but a few. Although it is probably too early to assess the effectiveness of these initiatives, it will be important that attention is paid to the growing importance of leadership across organisational boundaries, and to the transfer of learning between different sectors.

Chartering a new course
Among the effective development methods for today’s leaders are those which focus on the behavioural impact of individuals and build in time for reflection and feedback.

It is within this context that the Institute has developed its Inspirational Leadership Programme (see This programme provides development of management and leadership capabilities at all levels throughout the organisation and ensures that a practical application and impact on the workplace can result.

These programmes also have the flexibility of being linked to the new recognition of Chartered Manager (see a href="" target"_blank">, which is unique in that managers are assessed not only on their knowledge and experience, but also by colleagues and customers on their practical impact at work.

For managers themselves, the Chartered Manager programme provides an on-line continuing professional development environment, self-assessment tools, signposts learning opportunities and monitors progress. It also provides independent confirmation of an individual’s management skills and evidence that those skills are being kept up-to-date.

To achieve chartered status, managers in the public sector they will have had to demonstrate leadership and change management skills. They will be effective communicators, committed to ethical management practice. Most of all, they will be able to demonstrate how their skills can make a difference in leading change in the public sector.


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