After years of denigrating the public sector's fatalism and caution - in large part features arising from successive governments' dismissal of it - there are faint glimmers that this government is considering a different approach.
Contrary to received wisdom, the answers to effective publicsector management are not all in the private sector. Much of the government's managerial orthodoxy is effectively, if quietly, challenged and in parts demolished in a report on strengthening public-sector leadership by the Cabinet Office's performance and innovation unit (PIU).
1 The report notes many features of the public sector distinguish it from the private sector, including political context, funding and accountability arrangements, the lack of market pressure, the pressure to collaborate horizontally, and the distinctive ethos of public services.
The report examines what kind of leaders and skills are needed in a highly networked world less amenable to command-andcontrol techniques. It states that the public services demand a distinctive approach to leadership.
These insights are not new, but do not seem to have registered with politicians or their advisers.
That may be about to change with the prime minister himself welcoming the research paper.
Concern over the future of public services has possibly never been higher. Public expectations are running high, fuelled by the government's own impatience to see improvements. Under the badge of the modernisation project, the government is subjecting the public sector to a stream of initiatives designed, in its eyes, to drag it into the 21st century. Yet they all share one feature - a touching faith in the centre's ability to effect change from Westminster/Whitehall and an almost total ignorance of how change management occurs in the public sector. Far from a revitalised cadre of managers being in evidence, the result is a haemorrhaging of managers from the NHS. They feel demotivated, demoralised, disempowered, over-burdened, and anxious about being blamed personally for poor performance.
Among the PIU report's key findings is the evidence that 'public-service leaders are often unable to lead effectively because others fail to give them the freedom. . . to do so'. Among the recommended actions is the need to strike a better balance between the freedom to lead and the ability to hold public-service leaders to account. This means that there is too much micromanagement of public services from Whitehall, though it does not work. Public-service leaders 'need to be given the space in which to lead from politicians and central government'.
It is a theme taken up in the House of Commons health committee's report on public health.
The committee received written and oral evidence from many organisations and people across the public sector and beyond. Almost unanimously, the evidence criticised the government's command-andcontrol management style and the emphasis on top-down targets and performance agreements. These stifled innovation and creativity and led to managers doing what was expected of them rather than what was most desirable locally.
The report criticises the bidding culture that has developed around the funds allocated to improve public services, control over which remains with the centre. Finally, the report criticises efforts to improve partnership working led from the centre. Making things happen, as one witness put it, 'is down to local people, local relationships and having the right skills and the training to do it'.
It remains to be seen whether the PIU arguments, and the criticisms levelled at the government by the health committee, register with ministers and whether they accept the implied criticism of much of their stewardship of the public sector since May 1997.
Even if not, the reports provide invaluable ammunition for public-sector managers in their future dealings with ministers.
Possibly the strongest weapon in their arsenal is the stark reality described in the PIU report that public services are not attracting or keeping the best leaders. Those remaining feel under-valued and generally mistrusted by their political masters and mistresses who are quick to blame them for every failing. Ministers cannot ignore the mounting evidence testifying to the flaws in their implementation strategy. The PIU findings offer them a new direction. They should take it.
1 Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit. Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector. PIU, 2001.
2 House of Commons Health Committee. Public Health. Second Report, Volume 1. Session 2000-01. The Stationery Office, 2001.