Great leaders foster great public services

Perhaps the most important insight from this collection of interviews by Liz Kendall MP and Steve Reed MP is the huge impact that people prepared to think differently about public services can have on the quality of local services. Whether it is social entrepreneurs like Josh MacAlister and Hilary Cottam trying different approaches or local government leaders like Jim MacMahon of Oldham who are not prepared to accept the status quo, these interviews demonstrate the importance of leadership and vision. This is such a simple insight it perhaps barely seems worth stating, but it is one which raises an important and challenging question about how we foster more and better leadership in our public services.

In their concluding essay, Liz Kendall and Steve Reed paint a convincing and positive picture of what modern public services should look like – services that start with people, not institutions; that reduce reliance on the state rather than promote it; that give people power and choice over their lives rather than take it away; and that embrace disruptive innovation rather than carrying on with the same old way of doing things even if it simply is not working. They argue that if got right, pursuing many of these approaches in public service reform can not only lead to better but also more efficient public services, illustrating this through the case studies highlighted in their interviews.

While the collection explores important themes around decentralisation and people-centred public services, the role of leadership in creating public services that look like this is perhaps under explored. When looking at the difference between outstanding and struggling schools, hospitals and care homes, the key difference is usually the quality of leadership in the organisations that are delivering excellent services. Excellent leadership can overcome a great deal, whether it’s balancing the need to deliver a full and rich curriculum at the same time as meeting national targets on literacy and maths, or overcoming silos in health and care at the local level to jointly deliver people-focused services for older people. Leaders are fundamental to creating the environments that support good professionals to succeed. As a governor of a school that has been on a steep improvement journey under the stewardship of an outstanding head, I know there is only so much an outstanding teacher in a poorly-managed school can achieve, for example.

While there are examples of outstanding leadership in all types of public services, the truth is we do not yet see this across the board. If we are serious about creating better public services, learning from the best practice we already see, we need to think harder about how we foster more great leadership and what type of support needs to be provided for those leaders who need to improve. Without this, there is only so much other public sector reform agendas – be they further decentralisation, reforms to accountability frameworks and targets, or new national training initiatives – can achieve.

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Sonia Sodha is a former adviser to Ed Miliband and writes for Progress in a personal capacity

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