In conversation with Jessica Studdert

What one thing would you change about public sectors approach to developing leaders?

The public sector tends to develop leaders to perform management roles within organisations, when what is increasingly required is a broader notion of leadership which fosters change, very often outside of organisational boundaries. Most public sector bodies have traditional hierarchical structures, in which wisdom is perceived to reside in the top echelons, where decisions are primarily made. Such rigidity made sense in the middle of the last century, when demand was more predictable and a paternalistic culture was unquestioned. It is increasingly out of sync with the complex, unpredictable external environment that public sector bodies operate within today.

So public sector leaders increasingly need to empower leadership and enable innovation throughout their organisations. This means being comfortable with permitting staff autonomy within organisational operations and a collaborative mindset that works across organisational boundaries, so that public services can respond to people’s needs more flexibly and effectively.

Currently, what is the biggest challenge facing public sector leaders?

The biggest challenge facing public services is demand, so the biggest challenge facing leaders is how to respond to it. This is more than a question of money, though that of course plays a role – both in terms of adequate resourcing of services, and risings costs of interventions. As our society ages, and as inequality persists, demand pressures on services are growing both in overall quantum and in complexity. The operating model of public sector organisations was established before rising demand and constrained resource were significant features. Unless we radically shift how public sector organisations operate, we will get diminishing returns on public investment.

This means a shift away from the primarily transactional, crisis-driven model of intervening when problems arise, towards an approach built on a collaborative relationship in which public servants and people themselves work together creatively to resolve personal and social challenges, and to avert crisis demand.

What is the biggest opportunity for public sector organisations to reorganise culturally?

 Such a shift doesn’t require a structural reorganisation, which tends to be the go-to response for national policy-makers or senior management seeking to demonstrate efficacy and advancement. In an uncertain operating context, securing impact needs a more nuanced approach – and here is where the role of culture is often overlooked. NLGN’s Changemaking Vision set out how a wide range of organisations at the frontier of innovation and impact internationally  – from the US Army Special Forces to Dutch homecare – understood how the mindset and behaviours of their staff had the biggest impact on the success of their mission. They all prize three core values that represent organisational norms: creativity, self-determination and collaboration (the counters of these, which deaden impact, being inertia, hierarchy and territorialism).

Our second Changemaking report Culture Shock used a framework for understanding the role of culture within local government. While the hierarchical culture that dominates most councils is conducive to repeated outputs and predictable interventions, other cultures are increasingly required for current demands. A more collaborative (clan) culture can foster a greater sense of shared endeavour and teamwork that breaks down organisational silos, and a more creative (adhocratic) culture permits the experimentation and curiosity that can challenge defunct practices and pioneer new ones. There is a big opportunity now to embed a deeper understanding of the role of culture and how it can be attuned to specific outcomes sought.

What will be your key priorities at the NLGN be over the coming year?

 Our established Changemaking theme will continue to be a big priority: our next step is to set out a Changemaking vision for the public sector more broadly. It seems that national political debate on public services (such as it exists) is trapped between two dominant narratives, neither of which have an answer to the demand imperative.

On the one hand, the Labour Party has developed a fixation with bringing services back in house and seems to be turning back to an era of big state interventions. On the other, the Conservative Government seems content to continue drifting along with a market-dominated model, but no end to austerity and ad hoc injections of cash to alleviate pressures short term. Neither model meets the pressing demand challenges of today. Both focus on means rather than ends. This lack of vision for the future, based on a clear understanding of our present reality and the outcomes we need, is an increasingly desperate gap in our national thinking. We cannot continue to stumble from one crisis to another, nor can we turn the clocks back to a bygone age of paternalism.

So NLGN will be very focussed on filling in that gap. We will soon publish a new vision for Changemaking public services, which will set out the case for a more fundamental paradigm shift. This will be geared towards unleashing the required culture and mindset within public services for impact, how the national framework can incentivise and permit such a shift, and designed to generate a sustainable system that is fit for purpose for the future.

Jessica Studdert is the Deputy Director at the New Local Government Network and will be speaking on Delivering organisational transformation, at the Public Sector Show on 26th June, at ExCel London.