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Public sector managers: Facing the challenge head on


Managers in the public sector get a bad wrap, says the ILM's David Pardey. But are they getting the support and training they need to meet the challenges they face in the global recession?

It is easy to paint a picture of the stereotypical public sector manager putting their head in the sand and hoping that, despite inevitable cuts in public spending, they will remain untouched by the worst global recession in more than 70 years. Such an image, however, couldn't be more wrong. Public sector managers are well aware of the challenges they will face over the coming year and, more significantly, are prepared to meet them head on. The concern is more whether they'll be given the support and training they need to enable them to do so.

Research carried out by the Institute of Leadership & Management, Europe's leading management organisation, revealed that managers recognise the increased financial pressure would bring real opportunities for the public sector to improve working practices. More than half (51%) are looking forward to being at the helm of developing more creative solutions to their service delivery.

No-one wants to underplay the potential crippling effect that cuts could have on the public sector budgets and resourcing levels, least of all managers. More than half (52%) predict a reduction in the quality of service to customers and around three-quarters (73%) anticipate higher workloads. They are also well aware of the impact this could have on staff, with more than 60% fearing it will result in lower staff morale and increased stress. Despite all of this, there is clearly a willingness and a mindset in place to deal with the situation in the best way possible. This can only be turned to into actions, however, if the managers are given the support they need.

We all know that the knee-jerk reaction in a downturn is to slash learning and development budgets and almost half of managers (48%) believe training is likely to be cut in the next few months. While nothing is sacrosanct, however, there is a clear argument for learning and development professionals using training as a tool to fight against the impact of cuts in the public sector rather than letting it be a victim of them. For it is only through proper training and, crucially, ensuring this is transferred back to the workplace, that we can ensure public sector managers are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to manage their teams through the tough times ahead and make sure that frontline services aren't adversely affected.

Implementing change on an unprecedented scale

The next few months will see public sector managers having to drive and implement change on an unprecedented scale. Their decision-making skills will be tested like never before. And their ability to motivate, communicate with and lead their people will be paramount. There is no place for a lack of competency in core management skills. Added to all of this, managers will be required to come up with creative solutions to both old and new problems and this will mean fostering a culture of innovation in the public sector that perhaps hasn't been a priority in the past.

As well as honing existing skills, new ones will need to be developed. In future, the manager's role is likely to involve more partnership and collaborative working whether that be with other public sector organisations or indeed the private sector. Depriving managers of training severely limits their ability to achieving all of the above and would, without doubt, add up to a huge false economy.

The public sector manager's appetite for change and the extent of their willingness to adapt shouldn't be underestimated. ILM’s research also found that many believe cuts would provide a welcome opportunity to improve teamwork and communication (48%), deal with inefficiency (42%), make important decisions (31%) and manage out poor performers (28%). Perhaps most surprising was the largely positive attitude towards targets with nearly 70% supporting them as long as they are realistic and localised.

Overall, the research proves that the clichéd picture of the rather pedestrian and set-in-their-ways public sector manager is fast becoming outmoded. They still have their gripes and frustrations, which mainly centre around bureaucracy, lack of resources and bosses not understanding their team's role and responsibilities. And yes, there is real concern about the pressure they will be put under in the months ahead, as well as fears about their own job security. Despite all these concerns though, 70% of the 1,554 managers surveyed were either satisfied or very satisfied in their role.

All aspects of ILM's research points to managers wanting to help build and shape sharper, more streamlined and fit-for-purpose public sector organisations. L&D professionals need to make sure senior level managers recognise this and capitalise on it by providing development opportunities rather than stymieing them through cuts. The public sector employs one in five people in the UK workforce and the work it does touches everyone's lives every day. As we all know, it is a multi-layered and complex organisation and implementing change within it is a challenge in the best of times. As we enter what could be deemed the worst of times, this is a big ask of its managers who cannot be expected to achieve their aims without proper support and training.

David Pardey is the senior manager, policy and research at Institute of Leadership & Management.

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