We’re caught in a trap; why change struggles in the Public Sector…

…It’s a great shame that the things that need saying only get said when those who say them have nothing to lose. Is that the courage we need from leaders in the Public Sector?

This week the outgoing head of the NHS, the largest Public Sector body in England and one of the biggest employers in the world decided to say some candid things that he felt needed saying. This trend is nothing new, we are often “treated” at a local and a national level to the spectacle of such figures cleansing themselves in public, in interviews, on-line or in their juicy must read memoirs, but choosing the time of your departure to say the things you should have said when you had a chance to influence them is an insult to us all. It suggests you were probably disingenuous and at best ineffectual while in post … and that would be fine if it was just your money you had been playing with, but in the Public Sector it wasn’t and isn’t.

It also sends a clear message to those within the ranks who aspire to reach the lofty and lucrative positions at the top of the Public Sector. It says, play the game, focus on the numbers, don’t challenge the conventional wisdom and exercise your values elsewhere. It’s a great irony of modern life that many Private Sector brands are now more dependent on aligning themselves with the values of their stakeholders than their Public Sector counterparts.


Trapped with commitments and just too much to lose. When I joined the NHS just over a year ago I tried to make conversation with someone in the staff cafe; and it was made clear to me that I was crossing the boundaries of the established hierarchy. The expensively Branded Car keys were placed on the table and references to the children being in Public School and the Ponies that needed feeding were quickly thrown into the air. After saying their bit and establishing their status they promptly got up and left. I realised two things at this point; 1) we were stuck with them; where else can people overseeing the inertia and inefficiency of the Public Sector earn such high salaries? And 2) they were trapped with us; if you are up to your eyes in financial commitments then you have become a slave to your salary and the work you feel you must do to maintain it; whether or not you may think it’s right. Such people cannot be a positive force for change in organisations that need to learn to communicate across boundaries and move away from command and control hierarchies, and the consequences for the Public Sector are dire. It means that right in the place and time when ordinary will no longer cut the mustard, those people in positions of influence have too much to lose to risk saying or doing anything out of the ordinary.

The problem of implementing change in the Public Sector is further compounded by the Peter Principle, the further up the ladder you go the less knowledge you have and the more exposed you are. Being in a position of leadership requires self-awareness and a sense of personal security, but leadership is not management and it was never designed for the faint hearted. Positions of leadership are not suited to everyone and reaching a position of leadership should not be seen as a logical progression within a managers career path. Unfortunately in the Public Sector people are all too often placed in positions that require leading people based on their experience as managers of things. Managing things is not leading people.

Leadership requires courage, and courage is surely about saying and doing the right thing at the right time irrespective of the consequences. It is about being true to your conscience and when we see it in others we generally recognise it as a quality of great leadership … we follow such people, and leaders need followers.


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