Two items on Friday morning hit a common, jarring note in rapid succession. The Metropolitan police have again been accused of insufficient activity to deal with racism; there was an immediate call for leadership. Mayors are being elected to serve English cities; they will provide leadership. ‘Leadership’ is not a solution to anything; the belief that it is has become part of our problems.
The first problem is that the idea misunderstands what public services do, and how they do it. People in public office are supposed to be public servants, not masters. The public services rely on a strong system of accountability – nothing is done that is not part of the “golden thread” – and everyone is responsible to others for their actions. The proposals for mayors are based in the inappropriate belief that what we need to settle our problems is someone who’s really in charge. Nonsense. Anyone who thinks they are “leading” their city should be kept on a leash.
The second problem is that what “leaders” are supposed to do is not what we need to have done. Leadership is commonly described in terms of motivation, influence, strategy and vision. We have bucketfuls of documents of this sort – all made by partnerships, not by leaders – but if they are valid, it is because they rest on participation, empowerment and diverse voices, not the vision of an elite group. Mayors will be advocates for an area, communicators between people and authority, and perhaps executives.
The third problem follows from the second: people are being appointed to senior office on the wrong criteria. They are being selected because they appear to have “leadership” qualities. We have seen a series of fiascoes where “leaders” and “leadership teams” have made visionary but ill-informed decisions – such as the NHS computer system. It might be better if people in senior positions were appointed for their competence, knowledge and skills.
The government expresses concern that public sector pay has risen above private sector pay. That is only to be expected. Whenever services are commissioned from the private and voluntary sectors, lower-paid workers are moved out of the public sector. Those who are left behind are the senior managers whose task is to commission services, and their pay tends to be higher than those of the employees who have been transferred out. This has been the policy of both Labour and Conservative governments for more than twenty years.
I attended a dreadful lecture last week about “Systems Thinking”, which had little by way of thought, or indeed of system. Systems thinking was, and could be, a distinctive set of methods for analysing complex relationships within an entity; but the term seems for the moment to be a catch-all term used to describe flexible, responsive organisations that are open to using information. Ideas like Kaizen, Lean and continuous improvement have been drawn in from private sector management in order to criticise the operation of public sector activities – the Department for Work and Pensions has embraced “Lean” in principle, if not in practice. But the ideas are confused. They rely heavily on insights from staff and service users, without considering that policy makers, officials and users might legitimately have different perspectives and priorities. They are overlain with other management fads, like leadership, networks and collaboration. John Seddon’s book Systems thinking in the public sector (Triarchy, 2008) is a prime example of this kind of muddle. Seddon identifies systems he disagrees with as “command and control” – but hierarchical and bureaucratic management are quite different from each other, and different again from management by objectives. He claims that systems thinking is responsive to service users, but then he distinguishes “value demand”, which the service wants to meet, from “failure demand” which is “wasteful” – a distinction rooted in the perspective of the agency, not of the service user. And he supposes that rights of citizenship (like the demands of citizens for security through visible policing) are wasteful, because they do not serve the agencies’ purpose – except that serving citizens may well be the purpose. There are often good reasons why public services behave the way that they do. The first step for would-be critics should be to ask why – and analysing processes in terms of systems ought to have been one way to find out.
This is the abstract of a newly published article, in which I discuss the idea of leadership: it has appeared under the title of “Leadership”: a perniciously vague concept, International Journal of Public Sector Management 25(1) 34-47.
Purpose – Despite the vast amount of literature covering the concept of leadership, it remains contentious, under-conceptualised and often uncritical. The purpose of this paper is to question the validity of the concept and dispute its application.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper reviews what the idea of leadership means, how it relates to competing accounts of management in the public services, and what value it adds.
Findings – There is no evident reason why the supposed roles, tasks, or qualities of “leadership” either need to be or should be concentrated in the person of a leader; the tasks involved in “leading” an organisation are not in fact the tasks of motivation, influence or direction of others which are at the core of the literature; and there is no reason to suppose that leadership is a primary influence on the behaviour of most organisations.
Practical implications – In the context of the public services, there is no set of skills, behaviours or roles that could be applied across the public services; the emphasis in leadership theory on personal relationships may be inconsistent with the objectives and character of the service; and the arrogation to a public service manager of a leadership role may be illegitimate.
Originality/value – The argument here represents a fundamental challenge to the concept of leadership, its relevance and its application to public services.
The Commission on the Future Delivery on Public Services in Scotland has reported. In a time of major cuts in public services, the Commission’s reponse is an unreflective recitation of all the things that Scottish public services have been trying to do for the last few years anyway: partnership working, holistic responses, personalisation and early intervention. And, just because we have been doing them for years, we know what is wrong with all of them. Partnership working is all very well, but services need a division of labour to work effectively. The main impact of partnership has been to refocus attention on the boundaries – often issues of that affect the interfaces between services (such as the environment or community safety) rather than the things which most matter (like health, education and housing). The problem with everyone trying to be holistic is that is means that everyone is responsible for everything; services duplicate effort and spend time dancing on each other’s feet. One of the silliest proposals in the report is that public agencies should all have the power of welfare: so the local NHS trust will have legal power to build a railway? Be serious. Personalisation is administratively cumbersome and wasteful; it depends on there being choices and options, which are drying up; it individualises responses (like employment provision) which should be generalised. And early intervention, which has been tried repeatedly for nearly fifty years, is fuelled by a myth of integenerational continuity, something that doesn’t happen; depends on us having effective models of development, which we don’t have; and assumes that early gains are maintained, which they’re not. The fundamental problem is not continuity, but long-term insecurity; and the route to a secure social framework is not focused early intervention, but a continuing framework of access to the services and support people need.