Leadership: Calling all state sector leaders

Leadership is the single most critical success driver in any change management programme. It’s hardly surprising therefore, that the Advisory Group behind the Government’s agenda for once again revamping the nation’s public services recognised the fact.
But identifying the obvious and recommending actions to successfully deliver better public sector leadership will be challenging. Many trolls lurk under many bridges on the route to this political destination – Prime Minister John Key’s house of Better Public Services.
That we need better public management to meet the more exacting demands of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world is self evident. On the other hand, we can say the same of New Zealand’s private sector. Its leadership and management record doesn’t offer many examples of best practice management in action. It struggles, for instance, with lifting productivity, developing management competency, growing successful global businesses and, according to statistics, is becoming more corrupt.
But back to the state of the State. Public servants can obviously do better job when challenged, as indeed they were by the Canterbury earthquakes (see this month’s cover story), and society and the economy need them to do so more often. As Key pointed out in his BPS speech, the state services account for the management of almost 25 percent of the economy. But, like employees of any enterprise, they need best practice management and sound leadership to perform to their best.
So what’s actually wrong with our public services? Unlike our private sector, New Zealand’s public sector has, from time to time, ranked among the world’s best. On most international measures it still rates among the least corrupt, most transparent, business friendly and efficient in the world.
Some of the authors that contributed to the Victoria University’s School of Governance book Future State think this latest round of public management changes will be different from those rammed through by the transforming Labour government of the 1980s. Rather than changes to the ‘hardware’ of government architecture, in other words organisational structures and systems, it’s the ‘software’ that needs upgrading – the mental models and everyday practices used in the public sector.
They’re talking about culture change. And so is the Prime Minister. His BPS programme calls for state sector “change in culture” which, he said, “the Government expects and is going to support”. The language is disturbing. It sounds like he and his ministers see themselves as somehow removed from and not at all responsible for the actions and outcomes of their 35,000 employees.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As internal public sector surveys and external academic studies show, ministers and politicians effectively set the tone for the good or bad public sector performance. Few ministers would qualify on any yardstick as good managers or leaders. Reflect momentarily on Foreign Minister Murray McCully’s handling of his Ministry’s recent reorganisation. And he had one of the best chief executives in the business, former NZ Post boss John Allen, working for him.
Culture, just like the fish in Bob Garrett’s best selling book, rots from the head. If the Advisory Group is looking at private sector parallels, it should start with state sector governance. Boards of directors, try as they often do, can’t divorce themselves from an organisation’s performance and they determine the organisational culture – good and bad. Ministers and politicians do the same, and they can’t shirk the responsibility.
When ministers, straight faced, talk about their commitment to state sector culture change, taking risks and embracing innovation it should scare the hell out of you. As many senior public service executives testify, performance for them is more about “keeping ministers happy”. Performance, more often than not, is about delivering political agendas.
The BPS Advisory Group is right though. The BPS programme is about leadership. Which set of leaders, however, is not so clearly identified. This exercise may yet prove to be just another public sector restructure to deflect public attention from the manifestly numerous real issues confronting our nation’s political leaders. Scapegoating is long practised and well-honed political art.
The introduction of new, no doubt more highly paid and therefore publicly accountable chief executives and managers, will need more than just private sector experience to overcome the real and complex issues facing New Zealand’s state sector. Time will tell if they deliver. Time and past leadership experience are not, however, on their side. M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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