Public employment as a protection from poverty

Working in preparation for the budget, I’ve been looking at some stats from the OECD.  I was interested to find out to what extent  public sector employment could be thought of as a way of protecting the economy, and that led me to the nearest approximation I could find,  “Employment in general government and public corporations“.  The figures don’t show any clear relationship to economic performance, but I wondered if they might show a different kind of effect.  Here is a table tracking the OECD’s listings of public sector employment and child poverty.

Employment in general government and public corporations Poverty among children, %, late 2000s
Norway 29.3 5.5
Denmark 28.7 3.7
Sweden 26.2 7
Finland 22.9 5.2
France 21.9 9.3
Hungary 19.5 7.3
United Kingdom 17.4 13.2
Belgium 17.1 10
Canada 16.5 14.8
Israel 16.5 18.7
Australia 15.6 14
Ireland 14.8 11
United States 14.6 21.6
Italy 14.3 12.2
Czech Republic 12.8 8.8
Spain 12.3 17.2
Portugal 12.1 18.7
Netherlands 12.0 9.6
Austria 11.4 7.2
Turkey 11.0 23.5
New Zealand 9.8 12.2
Germany 9.6 8.3
Chile 9.1 24
Mexico 8.8 25.8
Greece 7.9 13.2
Japan 6.7 14.2

There are reasons not to trust the figures here – is child poverty in the UK only 13.2%? – and simple statistics can mislead, but a correlation of the two columns comes out on Excel at -0.56, which is unusually high for social data. It does look as though public sector employment and job creation in the public sector are key elements protecting people from poverty.

How not to choose a Chief Executive

Fife, where I live, is advertising for a new Chief Executive for the Council. According to the advertisement:

  • “We are looking for a driven and ambitious leader with a proven record as a strategic thinker and change manager.”
  • “A key early task will be to ensure the smooth introduction of the integrated Social Care and Health model.”
  • “You will deepen the Council’s commitment to the values of Performance, Efficiency, Customer Care and Staff Empowerment …”

The first problem here is a misunderstanding of the role. The work of a Chief Executive is explained in a SOLACE report, Leadership United. Much of the work is about accountability to an elected council in a political environment. The Chief Executive is the key connection between councillors and the administration. The Chief Executive speaks for the council officers, and consequently much of the work of a Chief Executive is outward-facing, including external relations, relationships with other agencies and relationships with the public. Then there is management of the corporate team. Only a very limited part of the task is concerned directly with the internal performance of Council departments, and that is mainly done through established systems of accountability. The Chief Executive is not the main person responsible for integrating health and social services. The specification of this post is hopelessly misconceived.

The second problem is that they are looking for the wrong values. There is nothing here about public service, democratic governance, citizenship or rights. There is no expectation that a Chief Executive should listen to public concerns, or engage with them.

The third problem is a misstatement of the type of person they should be looking for. Driven? Ambitious? Are the Council looking for The Apprentice? I had occasion to comment yesterday about the missplaced emphasis on “leadership” in the NHS; the same pernicious doctrine has infected local authorities (and that would be my main criticism of the SOLACE report). In a democracy, the role of leadership properly belongs to elected authority. A Chief Executive is, first and foremost, a public servant, and anyone who doesn’t understand what that means shouldn’t be allowed within 300 metres of public responsibility.

The Francis Report

Although the situations considered in the Francis report are shocking, the situation they describe is all too familiar. The scandalous ill-treatment of patients was a recurring problem of long-stay institutions – reflected for example in Sans Everything (1967) and a string of scandals in mental institutions, detailed at length in J Martin, Hospitals in Trouble (1984), a book cited in this inquiry report. Nearly thirty five years ago, as a student, I was given an advance copy of the Normansfield report by Brian Abel-Smith; it described how patients were restricted and neglected, and the upper echelons of NHS management did nothing about it. David Ennals explained, in Parliament: “… the report makes clear that there were many people who knew just what the position was. Some of them were in positions of authority with power to act but they failed.” In other words, we have been here before. The main difference is that this time it’s in acute care.

Unfortunately, the Francis report does not point to the way out of the problems. There are some hard-hitting passages – given the findings, there had to be – but there’s an awful lot of words in between. At nearly 1800 pages, the report is rather badly written – indiscriminate, repetitive, with some slushy, mystical twaddle about leadership (the stuff about it being a quality of the ‘spirit’ is in there twice) and an 125-page “Executive Summary” (someone should have taken the learned chairman into a corner and explained what that phrase is supposed to mean). The review of evidence in volume 1 is generally good; Volume 2 spends several hundred pages reviewing what regulatory and supervisory agencies did not do, and is interminable; the review of general issues in volume 3 is long, prescriptive and often preachy. The sheer number of words guarantees however that it won’t be read.

The stuff on leadership presents the most obvious problem. This report uses the word more than 800 times, referring to leadership haphazardly whenever it wants to think about the position of people in charge, senior management, ward management, roles in professional settings, personal qualities, motivation, or relationships with juniors. The poisonous cult of leadership, and the assumption that people in charge should energetically push others to share their values and aims, is part of what’s created this mess in the first place. What the report is really describing is systemic failure, and systemic failure cannot be responded to through on an individualistic basis without gaps being left.

The cult of leadership

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.

Public sector pay

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.

Systems thinking

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.
– 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.