Thought Leadership

Centre v. Local: A leadership debate

Centre v. Local: A leadership debate

Anyone running any organisation lives with that constant temptation to dive into detail, to rewrite that draft, to ‘get every one in here now and I’ll sort this mess out’. These, after all, are the comfort zones for many.

The on-going debate around how the centre of government best drives public service efficiency and reform is mirrored in every organisation. How does the centre best develop and hold to account its business units and encourage ambitions to continuously transform and improve service outcomes? Time and again, the same conclusions are expensively reached: that control, intervention, micro-management, inspection, regulation and centrally imposed solutions do not, on their own, lead to sustained change and improvement.

It is interesting to see the political consensus around improving efficiency. On the one hand the Treasury has discovered the smaller strategic centre – fewer targets, more focus. On the other, yet another drive is on to impose solutions such as the sharing of support services across public service, as if this area was somehow a common, inert element in an organisation’s life.

Many public service delivery organisations find this tension difficult. The ‘short- term-ism’ endemic given political horizons and the risk-averse climate within which public service inevitably operates has in the past put a high value on the fixers, the people who will ‘roll their sleeves up and get things done’. Command and control styles have tended to be more easily understood and rewarded in this context. They have therefore thrived.

Those in central leadership positions, themselves working in very transparent political environments, surrounded by advisers whose cause and focus tends to concentrate on what’s gone wrong, inevitably find it very difficult to sustain devolution and trust, or to resist the temptation to interfere – and so history has proved time and time again.

At the end of the day, whether at the local or national level, head office still finds it difficult to accept that an 80% right answer generated locally is better than a 95% right answer imposed centrally. We are not growing the leaders of tomorrow, nor are we in most places living the leadership behaviours we all know are needed.

It’s about those organisations being in control of their own destiny and not having to conform to the latest imposed centrally-driven solution.

So yes, moving forward – regulation, inspection, league tables, good practice, rewards for excellence, freedoms and flexibilities, accreditations, intervention, customer/patient choice …. these all have a place. But just because we invest in these, and they are deliverable and tangible and provide a short term response, it does not follow that we can ignore the leadership deficit we face or the local leadership issues that centre on people and local ownership rather than systems and process.

Recruitment is increasingly being seen as an activity that cannot operate in isolation from the wider leadership challenge. Parachuting in, appointing and then moving on quite understandably leaves recruitment consultants as appearing to be expensive, less well informed, slow off the mark, short term and acting in isolation of wider strategic leadership strategies.

Good recruitment support itself will involve creative work in reputation building, re-thinking direction and roles with well-though through but not overly-defined job definitions and skills, more flexible reward schemes and re-visiting the ambition and direction of an organisation’s travel.

So, I recognise the scale of the local leadership issue that remains at the heart of Public Sector reform and improvement. We can’t just complain about centralism – we have to make localism work.

Hamish Davidson is Chairman & Senior Partner of Davidson & Partners. He is also Chairman of Entrepreneurs in Action, Iris Consulting and MJI Business Solutions.

M: 07932 698807

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