Public sector managers are undergoing a period of dramatic change. Over the last decade, they have seen public spending almost double from £389bn to £703bn and become used to an ever-expanding service. With cuts to services now finally starting to bite, they are finding themselves managing during a period of contraction for the first time.
Although this presents a set of new challenges, managers can contend with the changes brought about by contraction by applying leadership and management skills they developed during growth in the public sector.
Public sector managers have been concerned about the effect of budget cuts for a number of years. In 2010 our research report Leading Change in the Public Sector investigated public sector managers’ readiness to respond to the challenges brought about the recession. While their number one issue was work pressure, they said that their top concern for the future was budget restraints. Two years on the challenges for managers remain the same.
Despite these challenges, the research identified a strong sense of optimism and opportunity. Nearly half the managers had a positive outlook. A majority also recognised that opportunities existed to innovate and introduce new business processes, improve performance at work, develop creative solutions, improve teamwork and communication, and improve staff morale and motivation.
Leaders who want to drive change should capitalise on this spirit of optimism, and empower managers to develop innovative responses to budget cuts that will improve efficiency, introduce more effective back office services and improve frontline delivery.
For effective change management to happen, managers need to be made clear what the purpose of the changes is and be given consistent goals. New government legislation and initiatives, changing strategic objectives can make this problematic. A key issue for senior managers and policy makers is how well they prepare managers to address them.
Considerable leadership and managerial skills will be required to deal effectively with the challenges brought on by the ongoing changes to the public sector.
Managers can be supported in delivering better services by moving away from a top-down target-setting culture and instead using targets more constructively. For example, they could set realistic localised targets rather than having uniform targets imposed without consultation, which is in line with best practice in leadership and management.
Public sector managers need to be better equipped with the skills and knowledge in areas such as change management, innovation and communication. Yet the one area likely to be hardest hit by spending cuts is training and development. This is an essential tool to support the kind of radical change needed, as it equips managers and their teams with the skills to make it happen. At a time when the public sector needs to maintain the highest levels of performance, the availability of ongoing support and development for managers is critical.
By Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management.
This article was first published in HR & Training Journal Issue 12, June 2012.