Public Sector Focus


Future public health leaders will be system leaders

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

Following the appointment of the University of Birmingham to deliver a major national public health leadership programme, Belinda Weir, director of leadership at its Health Services Management Centre (HSMC), considers the demands on public sector leaders and the need for focused development support.

The unprecedented challenges facing public sector commissioners and providers of services in the 21st century have given rise to innovative approaches to building systems leadership capability. We know that agencies – and leaders – operating independently have neither the budget nor the human resources to respond to rising levels of expectation and demand. Nor do they have sufficient knowledge to solve complex multi-factorial problems unless they share information and skills with others. It makes sense, then, for organisations to work together to share resources and processes, develop economies of scale and scope and provide coherent system-wide leadership.

There are opportunities as well as challenges: devolution, for example, offers the prospect of strengthening local government’s role in healthcare transformation – vital in order to secure the radical changes needed for healthcare services. The system, therefore, requires leaders who are adept at facilitating that sharing process and able to influence and lead transformational change in collaboration with others, and it needs to find effective ways to develop those leaders.

What, then, are the underpinning skills, attributes and values which effective public leaders, working in collaborative ways across health and care economies, will need to develop in the future? How can people aspiring to lead in public services be supported to develop skills as system leaders? These are some of the issues that the ‘21st Century Public Servant’ research addresses, building on the findings of the first Birmingham Policy Commission into the ‘Future of Local Public Services’ which, five years ago, identified a compelling need to pay attention to the changing roles undertaken by public servants and the associated support and development needs.

Future public sector leaders, the research suggests, will need to be municipal entrepreneurs, capable of taking on a wide variety of roles – storyteller, resource weaver, systems architect and navigator – and developing cultures which support innovation. Future leaders must be skilled at building engagement with citizens, developing partnerships which are rooted in an understanding of place and community. This focus on ‘place’ has the potential to put population health at the heart of what matters in a community, but there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Local needs vary, with deprivation levels, with rurality, with demography. At the same time, leaders must be hard-headed and commercially-minded, able to deliver public value whilst maintaining a clear focus on accountability and governance. More than ever, future public health leaders will be system leaders.

The complexity of the system within which public health operates, and the move towards place-based working, highlights the growing need for a skillset enabling public health professionals to work across organisations. They need to respond to an evolving system, and be powerful, credible advocates for reducing health inequalities and driving improvements in health and wellbeing. That credibility will come from combining expert knowledge with a range of interpersonal skills such as influencing and negotiating skills, networking and conflict resolution. Skills relating to public mental health, community development and co-production are also vital for the new public health leader.

Developing that skillset requires expert support. It isn’t enough to simply put leaders in a room together and expect them to somehow overcome poor trust, lack of understanding of each other’s worlds and decades of competitive behaviour and magically facilitate agreement between partners to transform health outcomes.

The programme

The University of Birmingham’s HSMC, the Institute of Local Government Studies and the Medical School Public Health faculty have recently won the contract to deliver the new Future Public Health Leaders’ programme in partnership with Public Health England.

This programme is designed for people who aspire to director-level roles centred on improving the nation’s health. These are challenging roles at any time, and more so in the current environment which demands that health, social care, public health and local government work together far more collaboratively than in the past.

The new programme, launching in September, creates opportunities for participants to build and practice the skills they need to fit them for director roles across the public health community. Through modules, masterclasses, learning sets and experiential activities designed to enable personal and organisational development, build collaboration and spark transformational change, participants will come together to experiment and grow. Collectively, we believe leaders can generate the vision and the strategies that will address some of the most complex, ambiguous and intransigent problems we face in improving population health and supporting the growth of healthy communities in the future.

More details about the course will be issued from June. The application round for cohort 1 of this programme will commence in July, with the programme starting in autumn 2017.


To register your interest in the programme, get in touch via:


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