Public sector leadership


There are leadership issues in the public sector, but that’s not surprising considering the upheavels it has experienced since the economic crash. Austerity measures forced swingeing employee cuts of over 600,000 by October last year and an expected one million in total by the next election.

A report by Totaljobs and Dods Research, Recruiting for Today’s Public Sector, found that 45% of surveyed staff felt that the sector didn’t have the skills needed to deliver its services effectively and manage change. One of the main areas they identified as needing to be strengthened was public sector leadership.

Many of the jobs cuts have fallen on the lower grades, but there is speculation that some of the cuts should have fallen on poorly performing board members and senior staff.  The report highlighted that many public sector HR professionals are not recruitment specialists, so unlike the private sector they do not always have the expertise to hire fit-for-purpose or to achieve a balance between staff of different levels of seniority. A respondent from the Ministry of Justice said the perception of “goal posts shifting as [the] process was underway caused much distress and loss of trust in management”.

The private sector, by contrast, has tended to use the recession as an opportunity to let poor managers go, got the right balance between managers, staff and back office staff and distributed job-losses intelligently across the company’s functions, thereby retaining talented and highly skilled individuals.

With the economy improving, the report has identified a need to fill 1.5 million public sector vacancies by 2016/17. It’s crucial, then, that the senior posts are filled with skilled leaders who can steer this sector into excellent performance. Here are five areas where the public sector could learn from the private sector.


•    Transparent leadership, and joined-up thinking

Recession and the changes that brings always breeds uncertainty among staff, which affects morale and performance. For that reason, the private sector has been quick to adapt a transparent, open-door policy. According to the report, however, many public sector leaders still need to communicate a clear vision to their staff. It claims that senior employees need to communicate on the changes being made as well as implement an open-door policy to minimise unrest.

Private sector operator Paul Milsom, managing director of East Anglia- based Milsom Hotels and Restaurants, told Caterer and Hotelkeeper in a recent article that the lessons learned from recession included keeping teams informed of changes, sharing information on what cash-strapped customers expect, and insisting that even when business is slack key managers are out on the floor rather than in their office – demonstrating a “can-do” attitude.


•    Strategic planning

The world of commerce tends to have more experience of strategic planning than the public sector, but this is an increasingly important management skill.The private sector has long-recognised the benefits of cross-fertilising expertise between industries to bring fresh leadership skills into their business. Take Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry who has just become Apple’s retail chief, or Sébastien Bazin who moved over from LA-based private equity firm Colony and Capital to become chairman and chief executive at Accor.

But this importing of skills doesn’t happen so much in the public sector. In fact, the Totaljobs research shows that almost half (49%) of respondents gained their role through moving up the ranks internally. This means a smaller talent pool is being used, limiting the chance of finding cutting-edge expertise from a larger talent pool.

According to the report, those from the private sector are more aware of the varied range of skills needed to deliver high-level services in a range of fields and they emphasised the importance of bringing in specialist and vocational skills to the public sector.


•    Brand appeal

Private sector bosses have raised the profile of both themselves and their businesses through social media, websites and branding. The public sector now needs to sell itself in order to compete to attract the highest calibre candidates. Previous research carried out by and the CEBR, found that the “poor perception of the public sector” was the most common barrier for hiring new talent, according to recruiters, despite being more attractive than the private sector to jobseekers. To combat this, public sector leaders need to ensure they are out there boosting their employer brand and maximising their appeal to fresh talent.


•    Incentivise and retain good staff

Public sector bosses are not doing enough to incentivise and keep their best people. A third of public sector respondents felt that retaining highly skilled talent during the cuts was handled poorly by employers, and 34% thought they hadn’t taken enough opportunity to let poor performers go. The result is that often the best talent left the organisation, in some cases frustrated by job uncertainty, while those that had not been performing consistently were retained. Interestingly, however, some public sector organisations handle this better than others, opening up the opportunity for them to learn from each other, as in the private sector.


•    Skilled line-managers

Well trained, effective line managers are needed to help staff to perform at their best, to manage change and find the right resourcing solutions. Areas of specialism that are lacking, according to respondents, include health, policy, engineering, science, law and compliance. Continual training and development is needed to ensure that managers have the skills they need to achieve this.


•    Better knowledge and information management and data analysis

The private sector is commercially driven so it’s not surprising that its management has embraced the benefits of technology. Respondents to the report highlighted that leaders needed better information management and data analysis skills to help them make evidence-based decisions in their policy making. There were also specific mentions of the need for improved financial skills at senior levels. This could be achieved by employing managers from the private sector, or simply by sharing best-practice and expertise between departments.

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