Public Sector Leaders Are Caught In A ‘Perfect Storm’

A ‘toxic confluence’ of economic, social and political trends is challenging the leaders of all organisations – none more than in the public sector. What can a leader of a public body do to answer the challenge? The old model of leadership in the public sector has been under strain for some years. Time now for a new approach

It would appear that the Public Sector in the western economies is caught in a ‘perfect storm’:

The worst recession since the Second World War. Despite signs of a recovery, citizens are living through very difficult economic times. Providers of public services are being asked to deliver with reduced resources.

Simultaneously, there appears to be a rising level of public expectation of services – people are quicker to complain if they’re dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, a febrile media is feeding the anxiety of the public. (Think of the expenses scandal)

Falling voter numbers seem to indicate that people are feeling disenfanchised…disconnected from the services their national or local government is supposed to provide

In the UK, bankers bonuses, fat cat salaries and phone hacking have crystallised as a perception that some people are immune to the day-to-day difficulties with most citizens grapple.

Public sector employees are scared, angry, disappointed, disengaged – and may be increasingly ready to show that disenchantment through industrial action. Teachers are a current example in the UK, threatening strike action if their grievances are not heard.

All this leads to a ‘Gordian Knot’ of demands on public sector executive leaders in which they are expected to:

Bring costs down but do not lower standards of service.
Bring costs down but without taking away benefits on which employees have based a life-plan or lifestyle.
Act with integrity
Maintain or improve the engagement of employees who will be retained in the organisation – whilst simultaneously making painful cuts in staffing and resources.
The ‘old model’ of leadership in which managers are told, ‘serve your time, keep your nose clean and you’ll rise to the top’ will not – and should not – work in this new, austere world.

Small wonder that most Public Sector executive leaders are prone to keeping an iron, autocratic grip over:

Executive decision making. The Public Sector seems terrified of real delegation of authority as it can look uncontrolled.
Information dissemination to employees. The default position is to tell employees nothing. I’ve heard a senior public sector manager tell me ‘Openness sounds great. But it only upsets them…’
Flow of information to end users (that’s citizens to you and me.)
Holding any real debate over how the cuts should be enacted.
Perhaps the overarching component of this dilemma is fear; fear of appearing out of control; fear of being judged and convicted in ‘trial by media’ or by uncontrolled social networks; fear of appearing wrong or indecisive.

In my experience, this can lead to:

‘Sofa leadership’ (surround yourself only with those who are overt supporters) or
‘Death by a thousand meetings’ (leaders try to square an impossible circle and satisfy every single party).
Hiring consultants – usually at eye-watering expense – to carry out analysis, design new operating models and then depart. As they close the door, the draught disturbs a sheet of paper on the table and it wafts to the floor. It’s their invoice.
We think that these approaches won’t work in the current climate.


The situation is moving too quickly – people can be informed and adopt an reactionary posture before the key decisions are taken. Secrecy or privacy for decision making is almost impossible to maintain.

The size of the cuts means that everybody will experience some loss or other – of a service or a standard of living or a job or a pension or a way of working. Sometimes all of the above. So leaders will never satisfy everybody – why waste time and effort trying?

The public mood will no longer tolerate political posturing that puts too much emphasis on ‘presentation’ or that appears to avoid telling painful truths. We may have had enough of mealy-mouthed politicians and platitudinous executives. “We’re all in this together…” Yeah, right….

People want the truth, quickly and without ‘dressing it up’.

Suddenly, we don’t trust anybody. Journalists, Police, Lawyers, our manager….and (most of all) politicians.

Simultaneously, employees appear to want ‘emotionally literate’ and ‘authentic’ leaders who demonstrate understanding of what the implications of decisions really are.

However, this is very difficult to achieve without some apparent ‘sleight of hand’ – for example; ask any senior politician how much a loaf costs and mostly they’ll be stumped unless an astute ‘minder’ has primed him/her and briefed him/her adequately.

So what can a leader do to answer the challenge of this unprecedented period?

We at The Arden Partnership believe that these competing demands can be met successfully – even gracefully.

But some old habits will need to change. Furthermore, many current executive leaders may not be capable of making the changes – a new breed of leader needs to emerge. One who engages in behaviour that will appear counterintuitive to some….

1. Communicate with and consult those who will bear the consequences of the changes.

Before executives cry with one voice, “We already communicate and consult with stakeholders!” hear me out.

To consult in the present climate means directly involving the victims of the troubles to a degree we believe is unprecedented.

First, leaders need to be fearlessly open about the facts: Budgets will decrease from x to y. State these facts again and again and again via multiple media. Don’t stop doing it.

Second, instead of going into closed session to debate the decision (“which services will we cut and by how much?), or squirreling the debate into a committee setting, the leader’s role is to take the debate out to where it belongs….with those affected.

The leader’s role is to create and articulate choices for stakeholders…..not to make the decision itself

E.g “We could cut service x. Consequences would be as follows…….Or we could cut service y which would mean that…. Or we could cut both….One thing we can’t do is maintain both as they have been”.

What the leader does next is not driven by his or her decision making capability but by acquiring an in-depth understanding of stakeholder opinion – even if this isn’t clearcut.

The idea of asking before implementing is a simple and well known one – people are more likely to engage in changes (even painful ones) if they feel that they have had some say in how the changes are executed.

Decisions that emerge from smoke-filled rooms spark revolutions.

Many senior managers will find this prospect completely untenable. Their fear is well founded. What I’m suggesting feels utterly insecure….like an amputee standing on a newly-acquired prosthetic….vulnerable and alone.

Leaders: get used to that feeling….it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

On the other hand, consulting to this degree means that:

- leaders are seen to be treating people with respect. Not holding back the truth and listening with ferocious diligence.

- the current zeitgeist of “the privileged few and the down trodden many” is overtly acknowledged and addressed

- a large population is engaged in a meaningful debate about how the organisation functions – maybe even about why the organisation exists. Many heads are more creative than a few.

- leaders will need to adopt behaviours that for some will be novel – giving choices, relinquishing control, listening as if their very lives depended on it and calmly facing opposition as a phenomena to be understood rather than an obstacle to be surmounted.

2. Act on the results of the consultation

It’s not enough to listen. Leaders have to act on the feedback they get. If suggestions and ideas made by stakeholders are non-starters, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. So don’t implement these ideas – simply say why they’re not being implemented and ask for more feedback.

But the strategy should be based largely on the stakeholders feedback rather than a cabal of senior managers who are uniquely ‘in the loop’.

What if stakeholders views are in conflict – say between suppliers and customers? Then the leaders duty becomes one of resolving that conflict so that everybody gets some of what they want but that the expenditure is reduced to the prescribed level.

…And I’m not suggesting that leaders stop the basics of good management. There should still be a visible audit trail from stakeholder consultation to strategy, tactics and operations.

3. Actively encourage and welcome opposition from all quarters.

Disagreement becomes the source of fruitful debate rather than insurrection. If an employee buttonholes a CEO on her tour of a hospital to remonstrate about the latest cuts or changes, the whole episode is an opportunity to engage….

“What’s your view of the new xyz process that was implemented last week?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem to make any sense to us here. We don’t think it’ll work..”

“Tell me more…..”

“Well, (lists reasons for xyz not working)….”

“That’s interesting, thanks. What alternatives are there – given that we have to cut x% from the budget for this service…?”

4. Overtly demonstrate common cause and emotional intelligence.

It’s a commonplace that effective leaders relinquish their reserved parking space and posh car and other privileges at times like these. (Although distressing numbers of them cling to these trappings of office)

However, we hear less about leaders willing to get their hands dirty trying to understand what the changes will really mean for the frontline service deliverers.

The new breed will actively organise work stints on wards, in the classroom, on the road picking up litter.

Not everybody will be convinced by such actions (some will label them as stunts).

But they yield precious data that are not obtained by the usual channels.

Plus, these gestures lend credibility to a leader. Credibility builds trust, the most precious commodity at times of painful change.

5. Report back to all stakeholders without fear.

Regular and frequent communications about progress should include all the results – warts and all. Include all the triumphs, mistakes (plenty of those) and the policies that were embarked upon with high hopes but that failed to deliver.

And include the outcomes. “We set out to save £x from this department. We’ve actually fallen £y short of that. Choices we face now are to…..or perhaps to…..”

6. Relinquish day-to-day control over some operations by delegating responsibility for saving money to the lowest possible level.

Savings are probably best achieved by getting the frontline to make the key decisions. Ask any motor manufacturer – lean processes are designed by shopfloor employees who know the procedures inside out and usually know where the slack can be found.

The Effective Leader in a Recession

He or she is a 2-way communicator above everything. This is more important than financial savvy and decision making skills.
Emotionally literate.
A courageous and calm delegator – ready to hand control to others.
Flexible – acknowledges when a policy has not worked and drives for alternatives
Highly developed skills in summarising opposing views without judgement – a true conflict resolver
Very comfortable with disagreement and opposition – seeks it out rather than suppresses it.
All of which seems very different to the current model. Unprecedented times = radically different approach.

Want to know more about our approach to building leadership capability? Email Martin at or call 07977 531124. We’d love to hear from you

, April 24, 2014. No Comments. Category: Uncategorized.

About Martin Garrity

I've been training and coaching managers and leaders for over 30 years. I specialise in supporting leaders who are responsible for implementing difficult or controversial changes in their organisations such as restructuring or making people redundant. Before going freelance, I worked for some big corporates in training and Management Development: NCR and The Boots Company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>