How Do We Create the Public Sector Leaders of the Future?

What are the skills, capabilities and mindsets needed for public sector leaders to adapt and succeed in the digital future? Here are the views of the panel who joined us for our recent discussion on ‘Public Sector Leadership’.


Rupert McNeil - Government Chief People Officer & Director General Government Shared Services, Cabinet Office

EU exit and Covid-19 are massive accelerants and we’re now seeing leaders learning things in months, which they would have taken years to learn. Leadership in the public sector is actually not really different from leadership anywhere else, except that if you remember back to when we made the switch to high definition television, it's leadership and management in high definition in terms of the service that needs to be delivered and the scale of transparency.

To be a leader at multiple levels within public service, you need a great understanding of your service architecture, your enterprise architecture and your concept of operations. Over the Covid-19 period, we've seen some parts of the UK Government - which took decisions perhaps three years ago to deploy tablets to all of their workforce - that could flip their concept of operations rapidly, and do the same service from home or remote working. So we need people who who can understand the art of the possible. 

Soft skills are important, including a kind of patience. When you look at some of the things that got us out of trouble during Covid-19 in the UK, they include things like Universal Credit, which is a massive change to our benefit system - and yet it has proved invaluable during this period. So another feature of this sort of high-definition public sector sector leadership is you've got to be able to think immediately about what's happening today and next week, but also what's going to be happening in 10 or 20 years time?

Then as a leader, you have to really understand what's it like at the ground level, as well as what's happening in the conversation with the Minister, because the dangerous things happen when there's a disconnect between those two. So you're really generating the true sense required for system leaders, and I think systems architecture is the thing that we've got to be teaching the people who are going to be the leaders in 20 years’ time.

Professor David Eaves - Lecturer on Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

When we address mindsets and skillsets for our future leaders, I see those two things as actually more fused than one thinks. When I taught policy analysis, it's a little bit like negotiation, so you can read the relevant books, but just by reading you don't become an expert. It's more about thinking of these skills as a craft, where you have to do it over and over again to learn it. Part of a craft is building a skill, but I also think a large part of that is about building a mindset - so in negotiation, learning to understand people's underlying interests, as opposed to just seeing what the position is. 

Mindset is also a function of the structure of the organisation. One thing that Covid is really showing us is we can't rely on people to break down silos. The organisational structure needs to be assessed so that people can work across silos. When we make silo-busting an HR problem, we set people up for failure, because we ask them to fight against the institutional structures and that's not a fair ask to make of people. 

So if the mindset is one where we're going to be working across the organisation and we're going to be more diverse, we're going to have more soft skills. But part of that is the institution needs to be ready to change as well to both prioritise those skills and enable institutional structures that allow those to be capitalised upon to ensure we don’t have people swimming against the current.

Leadership on Demand

Surinder Komal - Director General, Public Services and Procurement Canada

The challenge we face today from a leadership perspective is that the speed of learning has increased tenfold. People are getting used to the level of agility and being able to tilt quickly, while keeping the long-term view in the mind. And that's the challenge, especially for the old-school people.

My core role is actually enterprise architecture where, from a digital perspective, we try to merge the business model with the operating model, enabling people with business capabilities, because business capability links together the two models.

I emphasise business architecture and systems architecture - why are they important? Forget about the technology, that’s the easiest part to do - the challenge is managing the change from the architecture perspective and the business processes - how can we quickly align those?

Canada’s School of Public Service and Digital Academy are now emphasising more human-centric design. We need to think of the end user receiving the services of the government and how they perceive it. They don't see 15 or 20 different departments, they don't care which department delivers which service. They want to access the service the same way they access services from Amazon or anywhere else. However it works in the background, in the front end, it should be seamless.

Carol Bernard CBE - HR Director, Cabinet Office

The Cabinet Office as a department is more than 90% located in London and in the next four or five years, we want to ensure that we’re evenly split spread across the UK, so we’re closer to the people that we serve. Covid-19 has been a real accelerator because we realise we can work effectively without actually being in London. So what are the skillsets that people need to be leaders in what we'd calling a hybrid situation where some people might continue to work from home?

Adaptability and resilience are going to be core skills. Even around wellbeing issues, what we’ve seen is those staff that are more agile, that are adaptable, are the ones that are coping best with the changes that we're currently under. 

There is also the question of permeability between the private and the public sector - it's not just about skills, it's about the kind of experience that I know a number of Civil Service HR directors are looking for that creates a kind of tension in the organisation that helps to avoid groupthink.  

We talk about the skillsets of public sector workers as though they're going to have a long-term career in the public service. But we know that with the changing nature of the workforce, people are going to come in and out of the private and public sector - they may be from the third sector, they may have their own kind of boutique careers. Wherever people go in their careers we need to think how we start to get that kind of skillset in young people before they come into the workforce.

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