Public sector leaders need a stretch class - RSA

Public sector leaders need a stretch class

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  • Public services
  • Leadership

For someone like me who faffs around with concepts and policy ideas it can be daunting to engage with people at the front line of the life or death business of providing core public services. So I listened carefully and respectfully to the local authority chief executives and health service leaders who were, this morning, brought together by the change consultancy Collaborate and the RSA to talk about system leadership. I’m only sharing the conclusion I drew from the conversation because it seemed to chime with at least some of those present.

A recurrent problem for all leaders is how to keep the show on the road while creating the space for change; how to manage in the current flawed system while trying to reform that system. Yet for no leader is simply coping a sufficient motivation. Instead, we need to see managing and changing as links in a chain of improvement. Coping is the ‘floor target’, reforming is the ‘stretch target’. The stretch is more inspiring than the floor and if the stretch succeeds the floor itself moves upwards.

Can we apply this idea to the framework developed by the Centre for Public Impact, which we have been discussing at recent seminars? CPI’s meta-study of policy initiatives around the world suggests impact relies on achieving and balancing three components; legitimacy, policy design and action.  

Listening to the council and health leaders discuss the challenges of service reconfiguration and integration I sensed a way a connecting the ideas of floor and stretch to the CPI framework.

For legitimacy the floor target is clarity and engagement. Employees, service users and citizens need to understand what leaders are trying to do, recognise it is necessary and think it is deliverable. Given the impact of austerity, the vagaries of national regulation and the scale of public cynicism that’s a challenging baseline in itself. The stretch target of legitimacy is a mobilising mission; an ambitious account of what is possible that not only excites people but motivates them to be part of change. One of my favourite examples of a leader who achieved the stretch is Mick Cornett the fat busting Mayor of Oklahoma.

For policy the floor is a practical focus on outcomes and people. This might sound obvious but, as many of the leaders in our discussion said, far too often the aim of policy is more about organisational self-preservation than meeting public needs or aspirations. As one leader put it “what drives too many organisations, particularly in the NHS, is the question ‘what can I be sacked for and how can I avoid it”. The stretch target for policy is innovation; creating the confidence to try things out and the culture and systems which mean failure can be tolerated and learnt from quickly.  

For action, the floor is an understanding and appreciation of the incentives of each actor in a system. If change involves asking people to do something which they don’t think is in their interests success is highly unlikely. Yet too often we are incurious or simply wrong about motivations in our own organisation let alone others. The stretch target for action (and I do hate this word) is ‘synergy’; the point at which different actors move from a zero-sum to a positive-sum game and from that start to embed expectations of trust and generosity. 

The element the RSA added to the CPI’s account is that it isn’t just about having greater legitimacy, better policy, more powerful action; these things need to go together and in balance. A successful outcome is more likely when all three components are good than if two are excellent and one poor. This is as true of the stretch targets as of the floor. Leaders can and should start from wherever the opportunity to unlock change lies, but ultimately vision, innovation and generosity need to go together. This is what Charlie Leadbeater has described as ‘a creative community with a cause’.

Facing the current challenges in local government, social care and health the idea of creative communities might sound like pie in the sky. But unless leaders are motivated by mission and possibility as well as necessity they are doomed to eternal crisis management.   

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  • Answered like an old school politician. So how long do you intend to hold on to the job? Do you have to be ousted or do you just one day move on when you feel like it? What exactly is the mechanism, I genuinely want to know.

    Seems like 11 years is holding on a bit long considering the nature and potential of the job. 

    Just don't understand why there isn't some mechanism to refresh the post at least once a decade. This isn't personal as I don't know you, which perhaps gives me a less complicit view.

    And I'm not saying you've done a bad job, in fact I keep hearing more and more good things, despite how morabund things can be in the regions (with exceptions). Where are all the Trustees and Staff based?

    Please answer the questions directly. I'm proud to be an aging menopausal woman and I'm getting so sick of being fobbed off. All this polite middle class thing seems to just perpetuate the power structures of the status quo. We need change! We need a compassionate revolution! Please hand on the baton Matthew, it's only fair and reasonable. I'm sure you are not the only person in the country who can do a good job of it.

    Give someone else a chance hey.

    Hit the refresh button.

  • Hi Libby

    Thanks for the comment. Sorry that our paths haven't crossed on my various visits to Brighton. I do think we are overcoming any sense of 'us' and 'them' in that we have higher levels both of Fellow engagement with national projects and of Fellow initiatiated activity than ever before. And don't forget that as well as the elected Fellowship council seven out of our twelve Trustees are elected by Fellows. 

    On recruitment I think our processes are strong and - in case this was the implication - of course there would be no question of anyone being barred from engagement or standing for office because they had expressed criticism of me !

    Good luck with your project


    • And I think perhaps you misunderstood my question. The "us" and "them" was re: staff v fellows and visa versa. Heard it twice from staff at HQ, as an incontrovertible truth in membership organisations, as received wisdom, as the culture. Surely that's not the way forward. Also heard that we pay a donation first and foremost, to the work the charity does, rather than a membership fee we might give/gain some benefit to/from. Let's be clear about the value proposition here. I see numbers have increased, but how many are just wandering around "donating" and how many are actively engaging? So much possibility here! So much further to go. And I really do get how far it has come in your time. I really am starting to see that. I'm constantly hearing Fellows questioning the point of it all and others not wanting to join because they can't see the relevance (anyone can go to most events for free for example and the website is well stocked with useful material). That whole Ning thing went on forever, wasting so much human effort, then the Fellows Directory, now the Fellows Forum. Still some hope there...
      "New think tanks won’t be able to draw credibility from their exclusiveness and close ties to the elites but rather from their capacity to convene a wide range of stakeholders and engage, directly, with the public."

      Perhaps we really ought to meet some time because it's hard to let this stuff go after 8 years on and off trying to find ways to engage, be met and add value. Have been to so many book and report launches, but where are the convivial spaces to just meet and engage! We get shuffled straight out the door with yet more content. Reflection and dialogue in inspiring, inclusive, convivial spaces is what's needed to develop collaborations. Very few and far between. (Bring on the ground floor expansion! Make it a major priority for fundraising I say.)

      Looks like we will get a series going in Greater Brighton but only because I'm working my bum off, unpaid, to do it, while begging for crumbs from the London budget. And it will be inclusive and convivial. Less top down injection of information and more "by the people, for the people". Do help me to keep finding the most optimistic, pragmatic, energetic, positive people you can towards that end. Already some good eggs appearing.

      I'm much nicer in person btw ;-) 


  • Hi Matthew. 

    Thought of your high regard for Fred Laloux /Reinventing Organisations hearing Radio Four Today this morning.

    Starts at 8.45am.  Ripe with potential. The tide is turning at last!

    "How much of Theresa May’s difficulties stem from her leadership style? Will her leadership style have to change in order for her political fortunes to change too? Margaret Heffernan is a CEO, entrepreneur and leadership consultant and Andre Spicer is a professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School and author of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work."  

    Also wondering, with respect and thanks for the original invitation, when will you be listening more to Fellows and more junior staff at the RSA. Have heard an "us and them" as fait accompli which seems very old school dualism. The compassionate r/evolution is going to require the many, not the few to face increasingly complex challenges. 

    Was invited to join in 2009 and so far it feels like a top down, New Labour policy fest, possibly even a personal fiefdom. But I do feel change happening. Currently working on getting the Greater Brighton Ideapolis activated peer to peer and have had great support from some staff, eg. Laura House. Are you planning to let someone else have a go at evolving it soon? To be fair, you have had 11 years now. I'm sure you have done your best and can hopefully see evidence of your best efforts having borne fruit. What's the recruitment process around that? Would appreciate full transparency. Tried to get a meeting with you but clearly not inner sanctum enough for that. And having publicly stated this, I wonder whether my consideration of joining the council will somehow be blocked. Takes courage to speak one's truth to power doesn't it. Especially as a relatively young, Australian, colonial migrant woman who didn't go to Oxbridge. I welcome your support in helping me, and all,do so. (I went to a Summerhill school,so you could blame AS Neill for this if you like).

    With bolshie curiosity and, indeed, compassion.
    Libby Davy FRSA

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