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Four public sector management tips

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

Alexander Stevenson, author of a new book on public sector management and a speaker at the LGA conference 2013, passes on some key tips for PSE readers.

It is easy enough to find management advice. But what about public sector management advice? Virtually all the management books you will see on airport bookshelves or management articles in newspapers and magazines are based on private sector case studies and written primarily for a private sector audience.

This bias is perfectly illustrated on Amazon, where management books are a sub-category of the ‘Business & Investing’ section. In Amazon’s world there is no such thing as a non-private sector management book. 

So in a bid to redress the balance, I have a written a book designed to support people managing in the public sector. To do so I interviewed more than sixty senior public sector managers and plundered my own experiences of working with more than 150 public sector bodies. Of the many bits of advice in the book, four stand out by virtue of the regularity with which they arose and their importance. They are:

1. Fully exploit the limitless comparative data

Almost every aspect of management can be made easier by having access to timely, accurate information about what your peer group is doing. In this respect the public sector manager has a sensational advantage – there is no competitive barrier to sharing this information between public sector bodies. 

Imagine how excited Tesco would be at the prospect of having unfettered access to every detail of the way in which Sainsbury’s operates. But often in the public sector the data is patchy and the analysis (perhaps understandably) half-hearted. For example, does every healthcare manager understand the processes, the costs and the performance of their peers? Is this understanding embedded in how they manage their organisation? The potential of having this data is a managerial windfall which should be fully exploited. 

2. Link people vividly to the ultimate impact of what they do 

The public sector exists to help people and make our society a better place to live. But often this positive mission can be obscured for people working in it either because it is swamped by the day-to-day hurly-burly of management or because their particular part of the public sector is concerned with enforcement. 

Thus prison officers spend their time with prisoners rather than with the victims or their families, or with ex-offenders who have gone on to lead fulfilling lives. 

Bringing people as close as possible to the good they are doing can be very motivating. It can also be very useful as the knowledge gained can help inform better decision making. 

And so giving yourself and your staff the time to do this can be a vital management tool to help people do better jobs and feel happier about doing them. 

3. Gather soft feedback on the soft stuff

Next to the clean financial accountability of the private sector, the public sector can look like a scruffy cousin. 

The public sector response to this has been to develop increasing numbers of targets. Some of these are helpful but many are not. 

A more sensible approach is to recognise that much of the impact the public sector has is numerically unquantifiable, and to invest time in gathering soft feedback – i.e. ask people what they think – rather than in devising and monitoring complex targets.

This is particularly important in frontline activities where the quality of the service depends on millions of complex transactions that occur daily between human beings, many of which are impossible to capture meaningfully. 

Of course, some statistics are critical, but the best way of understanding how well the service is being delivered is to ask these human beings regularly and rigorously what they think of it. 

4. Be proactive! 

It can be harder to get things done in the public sector, often for very understandable and legitimate reasons. 

When you are spending public money, processes rightly need to be followed. When you are making decisions which are vulnerable to public challenge it can be tempting to delay or pass them up the chain of command.

The impressive public sector managers I interviewed for this book all struck me as people who were driven to achieve things and were therefore adept at finding ways of getting things done and, crucially, were comfortable with making decisions.


Alexander Stevenson’s book ‘Public Sector – managing the unmanageable’ is published by Kogan Page.


Tw: @alsteve1


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