A much more challenging gambit...

25 July 2013

Public sector managers face different – and usually more difficult – challenges than their colleagues in the private sector, says Alexander Stevenson. His new book, Public Sector – managing the unmanageable, offers a guide to meeting some of those challenges

Isn't management the same everywhere? Surely the lessons that apply to the private sector apply equally to the public sector?

It would be easy to draw such conclusions based on the volume of management advice that comes to the public sector from the private sector. There are similarities and, of course, it makes sense for the public sector to seek advice from diverse sources. But public sector managers do face different – and usually more difficult – challenges, which require different responses. They play chess rather than the backgammon of the private sector. And you didn't see many backgammon players advising Gary Kasparov on how he might speed up his play and avoid so many draws.

Two unavoidable constraints more than any other dramatically affect the approach public sector managers need to take to the processes of management. The first is the lack of a single, simple success measure. The private sector has financial profit. Thus every decision in the private sector can be framed by asking "will doing this make us more profitable?"

Good public sector managers dream of such luxurious simplicity. What is the public sector's purpose? Does it exist to make us happier, safer, healthier, wealthier, more powerful, more equal? The answer is that it is there to do all this and much more. With so many different – and often competing – aims it is exponentially harder to complete the most fundamental management task of creating a focused and clear strategy.

And then there is the challenge of devising ways to measure success. It is rare for a public sector manager to have anything as straightforward as money to use as a yardstick for success. Without such easy measures it is, again, exponentially harder to set targets, to assess how well organisations and individuals are performing and sometimes even to motivate staff.

The second constraint is democratic accountability. The readers of Public Servant will not need me to tell them that public sector managers live in a world in which every decision, every investment, every expense and every performance metric is liable to public scrutiny.

Moreover, given the adversarial nature of our politics and in some cases our media, this scrutiny is often wilfully aggressive.

This accountability radically affects the way public sector organisations must operate. Public sector managers at every level are required, in maths parlance, "to show workings". Meetings are minuted, predetermined processes are followed and decisions are delayed until every conceivably interested party has been consulted. The democratic accountability also makes it less attractive to take risks.

The upsides of success are not enough when weighed against the public scrutiny afforded to the failures.

So how should public sector managers deal with such challenges? I have written a book which seeks to answer these questions. It is based on interviews with many successful public sector managers including the last four cabinet secretaries. There are many useful tips and anecdotes across areas such as achieving accountability, managing politicians, setting targets and even the process of making decisions.

But four bits of advice stand out:
1. Fully exploit the limitless comparative data; almost every aspect of management can be made easier by having timely and accurate information about your peers – and as a public sector manager you have the privilege of access to this information without the barriers of competition to prevent you from getting it. This is a sensational managerial windfall - make the most of it.

2. Link people vividly to the ultimate impact of what they do; some frontline workers, for example doctors, have an immediate connection with the people they are helping. But in many areas the link may be less obvious. Finding ways to make this link more vivid is useful in two ways: first of all it provides the information to help people do a better job, secondly it should be inspiring and enthusing given that the ultimate impact of most public sector jobs is to improve the lives of others.

3. Focus on gathering soft feedback on the soft stuff; many aspects of the work that public sector managers do cannot be held to account just by using numerical measures. Instead of spending time developing more complex levels of numerical reporting public sector managers should think hard about ways of getting better feedback on the softer aspects of what they do.

4. Be proactive! As obvious as this may sound, the good managers that I know exhibit a restless energy and creativity to get things done. They have been adept at resisting the (often legitimate) ways to procrastinate that the public sector can offer and ruthlessly efficient at navigating the necessary red tape.

Alexander Stevenson's book Public Sector – Managing the Unmanageable' is published by Kogan Page
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