Leading questions, by John Tizard

27 Apr 10
Leadership will be a crucial skill for local managers and politicians as the number of partnerships grows across the public services. Adopting the right behaviours is more important than applying specific techniques.

The contemporary public sector managerial and political leaders have no choice but to work in partnership with others in the public sector, the business and third sectors and their staff.  Leadership through partnership requires special skills and competencies and, above all, the right mind-set.  Adopting the right behaviours is more important than applying specific techniques.

Local government leaders and senior executives, with their colleagues from the police, NHS and other local agencies, will have to practise real partnership. They can no longer simply claim that they are ‘working in partnership’ when they are not.

The successful leader will have:

  • an ability to set clear vision for the community having consulted within it and with external stakeholders and having a clarity of the role and contribution that the organisation will make to realising this vision
  • effective communication of this vision to local citizens, staff and other stakeholders
  • the ability and the willingness to listen to these stakeholders and, in particular, current and potential partners
  • the patience to take time to talk, listen, consult and understand where the partner/potential partner is coming from and is seeking to achieve
  • a realisation that they must understand  the cultures, governance, constraints and drivers that determine what their partner can do
  • a willingness to invest time in building relationships – partnership has to be worked at and has to be embedded throughout the partner organisations
  • a challenging mentality that asks ‘why?’, ‘what for?’ and similar questions
  • understand risk management and ensure that it is properly allocated and managed in partnerships
  • be ready to let go and allow others to do so

Often partnerships fail because there is no alignment of objectives for the partners and/or no opportunity for ‘win-win’ outcomes.  One-sided partnerships are not partnerships they are one-sided arrangements.

Leaders have to be ready and prepared not to command but to negotiate, persuade and often to ‘trade objectives and resources’ with partners so that there is a rational reason for each partner to participate in the relationship.  This can be challenging, especially when the respective perceived power and authority of the partners is not considered to be equal. Simply asserting your power advantage will usually result in sub-optimal and unsustainable arrangements that will fall over.

While local government political leaders have the right and indeed duty to assert their democratic legitimacy in their localities, they will need to deploy this with care when they do not have any legal or other powers over the potential partner.

Whatever happens in the elections – national and local – on 6 May there will be an absolute need for local leaders across the public sector to address the most severe financial pressures for decades while at the same time attempting to improve or at least protect the quality and in many cases the volume of local public services.

Total Place and other initiatives across the country have demonstrated that collaboration between local agencies, and regional and national agencies could lead to the elimination of duplication of effort and spending, and to better customer experience and higher service quality. The new environment will require decommissioning and stopping some public services as well as significantly redesigning others across institutional boundaries.

Effective partnership and the leadership of partnership will be critical to these processes. However, experience indicates that there is a risk that in pursuit of speedy and tactical budget reductions local leaders – political and managerial – will revert to protectionism and intended or unintended ‘cost shunting’. This behaviour must be avoided. This will require strong leadership focused on the best outcomes possible for the citizens and communities and not on their short-term vested interests.

Major change cannot be achieved without engaging staff whoever employs them – given that many services are now managed by the public, business and third sectors – as genuine partners with ideas and rights.  Leaders must engage their staff and other staff employed in public service delivery – staff from across the public sector, and the third and business sectors

Over the past decade significant public policy goals have been secured by changing the behaviour of the public – for example smoking cessation and recycling.  Even without the budget pressures, local leaders should be considering how they can work in partnership to change behaviour with individuals, households, neighbourhoods, local businesses and community groups to realise local goals. This will draw on a leader’s persuasive, listening and communication skills. Leaders will need to introduce the right incentives, promote the right ideals and be in tune with the thinking, values and behaviours of those whom they wish to persuade. This is about partnership as much as any other aspect of local leadership.

Experience shows that too often public sector and indeed other leaders simply miss the opportunities because they do not step back and consider the basis for any effective partnership before they rush in to set one up. Sometimes they are too concerned with structures – important as these are – when there has to be clarity of responsibility and accountability for the use of public money and the securing of key public outcomes. Sometimes leaders put structures before focusing on outcomes. Sometimes they seek to establish or sustain a partnership when in reality it would be more effective and efficient for one agency to do the task or to contract it.

How many hours and thousand of pounds are wasted in long regular ‘partnership’ meetings because ‘this is what we do’ or because ‘we are expected to have a partnership’. Partnership is a means and not an end. Only adopt partnership models and/or collaborate when these approaches will add value.

Partnership is a vogue word. It may fall out of political favour. However, the behaviours, leadership style and attributes, and the opportunity to focus scarce resources on maximising outcomes, will be more important after May 2010 than ever before.

John Tizard is director of [email protected]

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