Leadership in the public services – why and what

Leadership in public services as key to the implementation of national policies. The causes of problems in the implementation guidance of state planned policy in this sphere. Develop ways of overcoming problems in the implementation of this policy.

Рубрика Государство и право
Вид статья
Язык английский
Дата добавления 28.01.2017
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University of Birmingham, UK


E. Peck

1. Why are we talking about leadership so much

Part of the explanation for the increasing popularity amongst both politicians and senior managers of leadership in public services is their perception that it can support the local implementation of national policy. Why is there a problem with policy implementation that leadership is perceived as being able to address? What is it reasonable to expect leadership to achieve in these circumstances? I will address both of these questions in this paper.

2. Why - the problem of policy implementation

In almost every country, there seem to be periods during which politicians in the governing party bemoan what they see as the inadequacy of the efforts made by the central civil service, by public sector professionals, and by local statutory organisations to implement their policies. Ministers in the New Labour administration elected in the UK in 1997 and 2001, for example, complained of the ways in which the implementation of their policies had been frustrated. On occasions Prime Minister Blair (1999) blamed public sector staff for their resistance to change, speaking of the «scars on his back» resulting from his efforts to persuade them to accept reform. On occasions, he hinted at sabotage. In 2002, for example, he talked of unnamed «wreckers» seeking to undermine reform suggesting to many that he meant public sector workers, or at the very least, members of the public sector trades unions (Blair (2002)). If there was been a problem for New Labour in getting its policies implemented - with its huge parliamentary majority, weak opposition and formidable communications machine - then we must surely look for explanations of Blair's frustration that lie not in political factors but within processes in the public service organisations concerned. When these processes have been uncovered, it may prove possible to consider the potential role of leadership in intervening in them.

Of course, New Labour is not alone in experiencing these problems. In the 1970s, there was a period of intense focus on policy implementation, which began with the famous work of Pressman and Wildavsky (1973). The title of their book is instructive: Implementation: how great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland or, why it's amazing that federal programs work at all, this being the saga of the Economic Development Administration as told by two sympathetic observers who seek to build morals on a foundation of ruined hopes. Reflecting on the experience in Britain some time later, Barrett and Fudge observed that, «Government seems unable to put its policy into effect as intended, or finds that its interventions…have unexpected or counter-productive outcomes» (1981).

As with these examples, much of this literature starts with an attempt to explain failure in policy implementation, often moving from descriptions of disappointments to prescriptions for progress. Many take one of two perspectives, representing either a «top down» or «bottom up» approach to actual and/or desirable policy implementation.

The «top down» method asks why frontline activity deviates from what the researcher reconstructs as the original intentions of the central policy makers. Writers in this tradition focus on such factors: as conflict over goals; the «private» interests of local agency managers or professionals; inadequate resources; and lack of leadership.

The strength of this tradition is its ability to claim that it asks the right democratic question; namely, has the will of the elected representatives of the people been carried out or has it been thwarted? However, its weakness is the converse of its strength; the approach must treat the inevitabilities realities of local interpretations and compromises as a potential problem to be managed. In other words, the top-down accounts are suspicious of anything that smacks more of complex adaptation than of simple adoption.

There is no single «bottom up» approach, but the approaches share the commitment to starting from the question «what actually happens once a policy is released to the care of local agencies and frontline staff?» (rather than the question «how far has the will of the elected central policy makers been followed?» beloved of the top-downers). They also have in common a presumption of some value in the local interpretations and compromise identified. One group of writers (Hjern, Hull (1982); Porter, Hjern (1981)) argued that, for all the weight of their democratic mandate, the preferences of elected representatives should not be decisive and that in most cases a wide range of both producer and consumer interests should have great and perhaps even equal weight (a view which, as we have seen, is not shared by politicians such as Tony Blair). Some, including famously Lipsky (1980), focused less on agencies than on the situation of individual professionals and the ways in which their coping mechanisms - under the constraints of their workloads, capabilities, aspirations and resources - define the extent of adherence to policy at a local level.

The «bottom up» tradition stresses both the inevitability of local agency and staff discretion and, indeed, its desirability for generating motivation and for sustaining professional capabilities and local problem solving of the kinds that get anything done at all (whether or not what is done is a faithful recapitulation of the intentions of the centre). The approach emphasises the negotiated character of wha-tever is counted as implementation; Complex adaptation is celebrated as simple adoption is seen as naive.

Many commentators now follow Sabatier's argument that from bottom up perspectives we should take the focus on the network of local actors engaged in strategic behaviour and from top down approaches we should retain the definition of the policy problem and the setting of the parameters of the policy solutions that will be acceptable. Unless you are a unreconstructed advocate of the top-down position - either theoretically or empirically - then the behaviours of leaders start to emerge as central players in the shaping of the complex adaptations of local actors that are both inevitable and desirable.

So, what are the central lessons for leadership from this brief review? The first is that policy implementation is, and has probably always been, problematic. Secondly, that elements of both top down instruction (emphasising adoption) and bottom up negotiation (emphasising adaptation) are going to be part of any effective approach to implementation. Thirdly, that organisations are attempting to reconcile the central definition and boundaries of the policy - which may be underpinned by targets and inspectorates - with the local interpretations of networks of professionals and other stakeholders which will create commitment to and ownership of change. In attempting this reconciliation, local leaders may find themselves caught between the rock of politician's objectives and the hard place of professionals' aspirations.

In exploring these issues, the broad argument of this paper supports the bottom up perspective to the extent that it represents a view of policy implementation as one of bargaining and settlement between conflicting interests. At the same time, and, as the top down perspective did, it also recognises the quite proper asymmetric character of the legitimate bargaining power of the various conflicting interests (and in particular the democratic mandate which is at the heart of the legitimacy of politician's ambitions for reform).

leadership state national policy

3. What - the purpose of leadership in policy implementation

In order to support policy implementation in public services, I would argue that senior managers have to assist organisations in two key tasks. Public service organisations may need interventions to ensure both sufficient capabilities and also just enough willingness among key players at least to acquiesce to, or not actively to obstruct, the use of those capabilities. It is this latter task - the generation of willingness - that I will argue is the purpose of leadership, in particular where leadership is promoted in the support of policy implementation. The creation of willingness is especially crucial in public service organisations (such as universities) where the traditions and accountabilities of professional groups will resist the over-exertion of hierarchical forms of authority by senior organisational managers (or politicians, as Tony Blair apparently found to his cost).

Of course, there is a potential irony here which is worth noting. In promoting leadership in public services, politicians and policy-makers may think they will achieve faster and more faithful adoption. In these circumstances, what they really want from their public service leaders is less leadership than smart followership. Of course, one of the characteristics of a very effective public service leader may that s/he is able to present to politicians and policy-makers complex adaptation as if it was simple adoption…

There is a massive literature on leadership. It is not my intention to revisit that here. I see my account as lying within and further developing what I term the sensemaking (what has also been dubbed the constructivist e.g. Lambert et al. (2002)) account of leadership.

The seminal paper is by Smirich and Morgan (2005) who argue that the very act of leadership becomes «real» in the process of framing and defining reality for followers; a key role for leaders is in managing meaning. Smirich and Morgan are amongst those commentators who argue that leaders are the primary symbolising agents within an organisation or group. It is argued that the management of meaning requires the manipulation of «possible figure-ground relations between foci and context» (Shotter (1999)) according to this thesis, leaders select foci and guide follo-wers toward the most viable path against a particular backdrop.

More recently, Pye (2005) has talked extensively about the importance of sensemaking. Her argument is that the issue of leadership should be reframed, actually shifting the subject away from leadership and towards «a more informed appreciation of the daily doing of leading, grounded in organising, just as it is in everyday life». Pye goes on to argue that the notion of sensemaking is useful as it is able to incorporate all aspects of social activity which go into the process of leadership. This argument draws on the work of Weick (1993) who explains, «[A]ny attempt to pinpoint the leader or to explain survival by looking at a single set of actions is doomed to failure because it does not reflect how needs change as a crisis unfolds nor does it reflect how different coherent groupings form to meet the new needs». Thus, sensemaking is important as, «it is more inclusive and draws in other crucial elements of everyday life in organisations which are overlooked by much of the leadership literature» (Pye (2005)). Leadership has a dual role in sensemaking in that it should both help shape specific issues and also act as a key referent point for others; «[L]eadership lies in large part in generating a point of reference, against which a feeling of organizing and direction can emerge» (Pye (2005)). By understanding leadership as a sensemaking process in this way, Pye argues that we may more clearly understand what is going on within the processes of organising.

Grint's recent accounts of leadership (e.g. 2005) have also focused on the role of the leader in shaping the meaning that is given to situations by others; that is, he sees a significant part of leadership as consisting of influencing the sensemaking of others. Grint argues against leadership approaches which suggest that context or situation may be rendered transparent through scientific analysis: «this is a naive assumption because it underestimates the extent to which the context or situation is actively constructed by the leader, leaders, and/or decision-makers. In effect, leadership involves the social construction of the context that both legitimates a particular form of action and constitutes the world in process. If that rendering of the context is successful - for there are usually contending and competing renditions - the newly constituted context then limits the alternatives available such that those involved begin to act differently» (Grint (2005)). Grint is suggesting that leadership has a proactive role in constructing context.

In this leadership theory, therefore, leaders' sensemaking on behalf of organisational members has purpose; it is intended to persuade subordinates and peers that the leaders' cause - for instance the leader's proposed approach to complex adaptation of policy - is worthy of followership. I would argue that the presence of such leadership is the key factor that underpins public service professionals' willingness to commit to a particular course of action in a specific situation. The acceptance of the leaders' authority by an audience - by subordinates, superordinates and peers - is the purpose of any leadership performance. Whilst sensemaking by organisational leaders may make a significant contribution to producing audience willingness, it is not sufficient in itself to prompt that commitment. The really important dimension of sensemaking is that it is undertaken by someone with a claim to authority who wishes to demonstrate the legitimacy and legibility of that authority in seeking to generate such willingness.

Furthermore, the symbolic and emotional aspects of leaders' performances are at least as important as the instrumental and the rational in making the authority of the leader legible and legitimate to the audience. So, the performance of leadership becomes the lightening conductor through which professionals become willing to commit to an interpretation and a compromise around policy implementation. Leadership is manifest when senior organisational managers perform authority as the method of generating in others a willingness to commit to a direction or action (or at least to the extent that they will not obstruct it). Of course, willingness is never uniform across organisations; identifiable communities of interest both shape and are shaped by the responses of individuals in the audience.

Thus, the enactment of leadership - the legitimate and legible performance of authority - by senior managers in public services can generate willingness to support complex adaptation of national policy. Leadership, however, does not create the other key factor: capability. Capability is a product of the more mundane - but probably more important - functions of management; the transactional rather than the transformational. Capability lies in the tasks of organisational design, recruitment and retention, training and development, technology etc. Of course, leadership may generate willingness by framing the nature and purpose of such innovations in policies, procedures, technology etc. such that the responses of others are rendered more receptive to these innovations.

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