What kind of leadership is needed in public services and how localised will it need to become? Stephen Moss

Output from groupwork at the second ‘build back better in the days after’ virtual round table.

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Reflections of the ideas expressed: Stephen Moss, Senior Consultant, RedQuadrant

In our second build back better in the days after session as part of an online gathering using ‘open space’ methodology, an interest group formed around this question:

What kind of leadership is needed in public services and how localised will it need to become?

A complementary question was merged with the first to stimulate the discussion:

What future culture, leadership attributes and governance is going to be required for local authorities where large scale remote working is a new reality?

example Jamboard – brightly coloured post-it notes on a white background

The discussion was conducted online via zoom in a breakout room with participants with a range of perspectives on public services. The main points were captured on a ‘jamboard’ – a virtual whiteboard set up to support the group discussion (sidebar). This blog builds on the discussion.

Four broad themes of leadership capability emerged:

  • System leadership of place
  • (Leaders) willing to work with community empowerment and sustainability
  • Relationship-based leadership
  • Safe working: psychological and physical

This blog expands on the post-its (highlighted in italics) to define a place-based, relational leadership approach emerging from the lockdown.

System leadership of place

Street level support networks eg Wigan What does this mean for how we lead? How do we lead on a strengths-based model?

empowering communities and families to support parents and children

Public service leaders need to create a different relationship with communities in the places they serve. This suggests greater emphasis on asset-based approaches to development and building capacity in local communities to strengthen local support networks and economies. Assets include people, physical natural and build environments, knowledge, businesses and goodwill. Studies such as ‘Born in Bradford’ point towards the need to create ‘community readiness’ to tackle local social issues impacting safety, health and well-being.

In places like Wigan, this is also about re-defining the social contract between local authority and communities it serves and how decision-making and power are distributed. We have seen during Covid many examples of people and their communities creating new support networks for more vulnerable people. We also cannot yet measure the impact of lockdown on health outcomes in local populations; we have seen health inequalities cruelly exposed, and the collapse of many SMEs and increases in unemployment on the economic horizon. In this time of transition then, public service leaders have little choice but to let go of power, regroup to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable and look at how to work with each other and their communities in new ways.

(Leaders) willing to work with community empowerment and sustainability

The discussion here focused on local authority leadership however the principles apply to public services in general, as the focus moves on to what is needed in a locality.

Willingness for LAs to do things differently and focus on empowering communities – Need right skills and values to do this

Understanding communities and building relationships

Local authorities as facilitators of services not delivering services

Leadership capabilities across the system/place – values based

Developing leadership across the locality – in the community as well as public services – means identifying with the needs and aspirations of that locality. This can be an essential part of building capacity in the community to care and to resolve important issues locally – care for the elders, dementia-friendly places, sustainable local economies and climate emergency responses, resolving anti-social behaviours. As leadership capabilities are developed everywhere, creating a coherent shared view of the priorities for that locality becomes central to community development, the role of commissioning and the coproduction of services that are relevant for the population there.

Focus on relationships at all levels – trumps structure

This means collaborating to make change and improvement happen irrespective of formal organization structures. Good relationships between all parties at a local level will drive better outcomes than formalized structures created  to ‘leverage coordination’ but where relationships misfire or lack trust and incentive to collaborate in innovative ways. Much time, energy and resources can be spent on ‘form’ – structuring coordination and complex governance – but the key point here is to pay attention to behaviours and interactions between people as the driver of alignment and cooperation to work effectively on complex local needs. Inevitably this will also lean into changing power dynamics implied by structure and organization boundaries and who decides on how funding is used locally.

Relationship-based leadership

A consequence of this approach is that public service leaders take a more relationship-based approach to leadership. To do this, Public Services leaders, often leading as ‘expert’ leaders in their field, need to shift their own locus more to the wider needs of the local system. Essential to this shift, they need

Reflection time needed to step back from crisis management

the psychological and mental pressures of complexity and the syndrome of ‘over responsibility’ felt by public service leaders is exacerbated by a funding and professional expertise operating model that leans into crisis management as a default setting. Reflection time as a leadership practice, creates the mental and emotional space to change the leadership approach to one that is more relational:

Move from ‘fixing’ to enabling – leaders have to believe in doing things differently and (be more) relationship based

this represents a shift to a non-hierarchical/non-patriarchal model of leadership, moving away from the dynamic of control and rescuing – moving towards enabling the strengths and capabilities of others to be seeded, nurtured and grown. Leadership is distributed through the local system and decision making is far more localized.

Managing by outcomes not presenteeism

represents a change in the ‘psychological contract’ with staff – focusing on helping people to succeed at what they do, wherever they may be working from (at home, in hubs and local places, as well as in the office). This assumes a maturity in relationship based on an adult’s responsibility to organise their time, priorities and schedules in ways they see fit; they are supported to do this if needed, but it is what is achieved – the outcomes of their endeavours that is important; working from home undermines habitual ‘presenteeism’ – and for that matter absenteeism, but this also requires a clear assessment of what people are trying to achieve and how that works in a ‘blended’ work place (home-based – office based – and place based working).

Developing leadership at all levels

creating agency and adult-adult working where anyone working in a local system can be supported to lead – essentially facilitating initiative, trust around a shared purpose, values and set of local conditions that support the aspirations of local residents and businesses. Investing in leadership development becomes place-based not organizational and is designed to meet local needs and solve local problems; participants come from all parts of the system.

Compassionate and emotionally intelligent leadership is essential

underlines the importance of  the reflection time needed to step back from crisis management – to make sense of what is going on and to ensure that the leader is not overwhelmed by feelings or the emotions of people they are leading in creating the conditions for recovery. As we recover from Covid 19 emergency responses and aim to build back better, creating the right conditions for working in new ways is an essential leadership role. The group discussion discussed what this means in practice:

Safe working: psychological and physical

Distribute leadership to ‘front-line’ and decision making – supported by new processes with governance

Less risk averse, innovative, citizen focused – how to safeguard staff in trying things. Leadership support is needed.

‘Experience strategy’ and leaders have to engage and ‘walk the talk’ with more staff working away from the office

Recognise and celebrate right values and behaviours in context

There are a number of trends influencing psychological and physical safety. If we take as a starting point the possibility that Covid 19 and lockdown has been psychologically impactful and possibly traumatic over time for staff and key leaders in local systems, then organization and place-based development need to be psychologically (and trauma)-informed. Reported increases in domestic violence and therefore adverse childhood experiences during lockdown, illustrates the tensions experienced by families which can of course also include employees of public services. We have known for many decades that any shift to remote working can shatter social networks that contribute to happiness, productivity and coping at work. Working in more relational ways is a trend in public services – children’s social care, education, homelessness and police services in particular are embracing ‘psychologically informed environments’ and ‘trauma-informed practices’. This requires organization and leadership practices that create the right conditions for this work to be done.

These two factors (recovery from the impacts of Covid and working in relational ways with more vulnerable members of society) require psychologically and physically safe environments to be created for all staff. Overlaying the points on the post-its above, we can see this is a critical dimension too in how leadership is developed to support these new ways of working.

Creating conditions for working in this way

Creating a ‘secure base’ for staff involves organization design and development that is based on the key elements of early development; that is creating a ‘holding space’ – where individual and collective anxiety is effectively ‘held’ and supported to differentiate the personal from the professional. In developmental terms, this is moving from dependence (working to instruction/prescribed standards) to independence (expert leadership based on what I have learned and trained in) to interdependence (working across boundaries in the system to achieve outcomes for the local population and service users). Without this progression we get co-dependence (and remote working can create this, and the crisis system described earlier encourages this) – which fuels demand, escalation and reactive strategies in a state of constant anxiety, over-dependence on fixing or being fixed and sometimes, constant engagement with ‘the authorities’ over a lifetime.

One outcome of co-dependence is conflict and/or avoidance across boundaries. Conflict can be both interpersonal and inter-institutional (often one reflecting the other) and leaders will need to develop the practices needed to work across personal and institutional boundaries to support collaboration whilst acknowledging the need to refresh and reboot relationships at every level.   Our highlighted points above can be a source of both liberation and anxiety, innovation and exploitation. Letting go and holding to account in adult ways are fundamental components of creating these conditions, in which feelings can be validated, the strengths of people nurtured, learning is valued and accountabilities are held from a place of integrity, without blame or shame.

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