Leading public services today: it’s tough out there
One of the greatest privileges of my job is to run the Solace/Collaborate Ignite system leadership programme for local government chief executives. Through this work I get to spend whole days with brilliant, inspiring, motivated, challenging and clever leaders, talking about the world in which they work, the challenges this poses for them in their roles and the development needs they have in order to thrive.
Last week we drew a year of these conversations to a close as one of the first cohorts ended. Yesterday evening I returned from Warwick after the first 24 hour session with the fourth group we have run. And this morning I interviewed one of the chief executives who will be joining another new group beginning in February 2019. Perhaps it is this convergence of conversations in a short period that prompted me to stop and really think about what I am hearing from my privileged position working with all these groups simultaneously, which is this: it is incredibly tough out there for today’s public sector chief executive.
I think it is important to share this, because this is not even for the obvious reasons that anyone with a passing familiarity with today’s news agenda might imagine. Brexit is up there, but is nodded to as an ongoing ‘known unknown’ — it creates ongoing uncertainty and demands attention day to day — but it’s not front and centre in our discussions. Trump gets a big nod (and often a laugh) — chief executives like anyone else are fascinated and puzzled by the man and the phenomenon. And in yesterday’s discussion Russia too was acknowledged as part of the bigger picture. The events in Salisbury are enough to send shivers down any council chief executive’s spine, and protecting our systems and data against cyberattacks too are now part of the day job.
But the real significance of all of this is how the ripples of these geopolitical themes are playing out daily in every community across the UK, and therefore framing the roles of local government chief executives in ways both tangible and intangible. Without wanting to betray any confidences, and acknowledging that this is my interpretation of what I am hearing, here are some of the big themes:
Isolationism & protectionism: the factors that led to the Brexit vote are now fairly well established, but Brexit is a symbol of a much larger fear within our communities that is causing people to turn inwards and close ranks to ‘outsiders’ of all kinds. Global events and terrorism in the UK are intangible influences, but contribute to the destabilisation of our communities’ sense of security and their faith that they will be protected by government and public services. What does this mean for leaders who are trying to create forward-looking, positive and binding narratives about the future of our places?
Loss of trust in institutions: people are less likely now to believe what they are being told by institutions, including local authorities (however the NHS as our new national religion seems to be exempt from this!) The age of deference is over, but it’s not always clear who people are prepared to listen to instead. The age of organisations may also be in decline, as we witness the rise of social movements as forces for both positive and negative social change (subjective concepts I know) — and yet we are still working within them and feel they still matter. How can leaders of publicly funded and democratically accountable organisations and services have a relationship with residents and service users in this environment, and what does the organisation of the future look like?
Digital: this is a constant theme in Ignite, but no one is quite sure whether this is the right word for the bundle of issues that include technology, social media, the internet and AI. It is clear that technology and the internet have transformed, and continue to transform, our society, our expectations, the ways we choose to communicate, shop and manage our lives. Naturally the public sector has responded, and in some cases led, the adoption of new technologies for the benefit of communities. However there is a clear sense that the technology is changing faster than our understanding of how to use it well, and its implications for public organisations and services as well as organisational culture is not yet fully thought through. Today’s leaders feel the need to be digital experts alongside everything else, but how can they get ahead of the curve and invest in the digital revolution with confidence?
The changing nature of political debate and engagement: one Scottish chief executive used the word ‘crabbit’ to describe conversation in the public sphere today. There is a clear sense that debate is no long as rational or polite as it once was — people are angry, polarised and looking for someone to blame publicly when things go wrong. This is playing out in our democratic politics as well as among the public, in council chambers as well as social media. Language matters more than it ever has — the choice of one word over another can send unintended signals as words become increasingly symbolic and contested by different sides of the political debate. How can today’s chief executives find the resilience to carry on in this environment, never mind rise above the fray to broker conversations about the future? And how can they create this resilience among their staff?
The future of our high streets and our places: the high street is dead, long live the high street. Retail is declining as a viable regeneration strategy for our places as Amazon (and the like) take over the world, and yet vibrant town centres matter as shared public spaces and sources of local identity. What does this mean for our places, and is it viable for everywhere to create a cultural experience instead?
You will notice that austerity is not on this list. Partly this is because I want to make the point here that it’s all too easy to assume that the operating environment for local public services is conditioned by austerity alone, when in fact all these other factors are at play. But in fact it is also because it’s the new normal: depressing as it can be, it is now an established part of the role of local government chief executives to manage cuts (let’s say it like it is), and to find ever more creative ways of doing this while protecting the services that the most vulnerable people rely on.
And yet… surely underneath all this is the constant rumble of deprivation and inequality in our communities and disinvestment in the things that bind us — community infrastructure, public services, early intervention and prevention, culture and the arts — and surely it is this inequality which amplifies all the themes outlined above.
As I draw this piece to a close I am conscious that this is an uncharacteristic piece for me to write. Collaborate’s mantra is to be positive, constructive, helpful. We work with positive places and positive people, who are determined to find a way through all this, improve people’s lives, find ways for their communities, their places, their staff and indeed for themselves as leaders to thrive. I believe this is possible, and that the places we are working with are showing us all the way.
However neither must we entirely accommodate and adapt to this new environment without recognising its characteristics, and the huge personal challenges this presents for the people who lead and work in local public services. I am constantly amazed by the resilience and optimism of the chief executives we are working with, buoyed by not a little dark humour along the way. But when a leading chief executive asks if the Ignite programme is a space where he and his peers could say “we don’t know how we are going to get through this”, I think we need to hear this beyond the four walls of the Ignite sessions. This valuable safe space is certainly a large part of what Ignite provides, combined with exchange of learning, peer support, some useful tools and new perspectives to shed fresh light on today’s environment and the role of leaders.
But on its own it is not enough. Anyone with an interest in public goods and public services needs to acknowledge what these leaders are saying and find new ways to support them and their teams. We need more safe spaces, more communication across sectors and tiers of government, and more understanding (and empathy?) from central government and regulators. And ultimately we need investment in the things that will help communities explore and understand the ways in which the world is changing and find new ways to engage positively with each other and find the things that bind us.
Is anyone listening?
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