The theme of leadership has permeated through all our work. As Scotland’s public services seek to establish a more joined up and coherent approach to meet the demand for integrated service provision through adopting collaborative and facilitative working practices, leaders face new challenges.

Paper cut-outs of people holding hands in a circleThis has led to calls for new forms of leadership to move practice beyond traditional, hierarchical and managerial approaches that have dominated in the past.

Research insights

There is a growing expectation in Scotland that new modes and practices of public service leadership are needed if we are to successfully reform the way our public services are designed and delivered. To be successful our research suggests that leadership has to be able to facilitate change within and between different organisations and sectors. It requires leadership for cultural change in addition to the traditional focus on structural changes in working practice. If our public services are to deliver the aspirations of Christie this shift is essential. Whilst this is demanding, it is possible, as our work on, for example participatory budgeting, has demonstrated. Here we have shown how new forms of leadership have brought people together to work collectively, challenge hierarchies, build relationships across the system and engage in collective problem-solving. This approach encourages deliberative decision-making and creative co-production.

There are a range of different activities associated with good public service leadership. These include:

  • Working with communities and individuals to identify their assets and, importantly, how they can be realised.
  • Working to empower individuals.
  • Working across and between silos.
  • Facilitating new ways of working to support cultural change.

A key challenge for public service organisations is the creation of an environment where this new form of leadership can emerge and flourish. This can be achieved by increasing autonomy through decentralization and empowering communities and individuals whilst maintaining intelligent lines of accountability.

Good leadership involves making power dynamics open and visible and, where appropriate, seeking to cede power in order to let others take the lead. People have to be prepared to renegotiate the balance of power at all levels for this to work and who possess the skills to create, service and manipulate communication networks. They also have to be able to identify where best to intervene in the organisation. This is often described in the literature as a reticulist.

The most effective leader may be from outside traditional lead agencies and often occupational jurisdictions may have to be challenged if leadership is to promote innovative partnerships. Leadership can support partnership working.

Working with community planning partnerships, we have supported collaborative action research in four local authority areas to generate and use evidence to improve and reframe practice. This requires re-thinking roles and responsibilities to lever cultural change by linking leaders at different levels across a range of services and encouraging them to develop a localised agenda for the system improvement.

Different leadership approaches suit different situations and there is no one type of leadership that fits all needs. At times leadership has to be distributive, at others facilitative, collaborative or even hierarchical or a combination.  Context is key and this means that people and organisations have to be adaptable, flexible and reflexive to develop an understanding of what type of leadership works best, when and where.

Trust and relationship building are an essential prerequisite for effective leadership. Without them it is impossible to bring people together and support them to engage in meaningful deliberation that leads to action.

We have been able to test the validity of our findings through our work with community planning partnerships and have developed an approach to spreading this learning.

Implications for policy and practice

There are encouraging signs that new forms of leadership practice are beginning to emerge across Scotland’s public services, but progress patchy.  Public service leaders have a decisive role in promoting, advocating, defining and defending innovative approaches to leadership by their officers. It requires a commitment both in terms of resource and, importantly, time.  Services have to become more flexible, collaborative, better networked and mutualistic.

Effective leadership is an integrated approach that facilitates change through identifying assets, empowering individuals and reculturing organisations and systems to deliver improved outcomes.

Good leadership entails:

  1. A shared vision and understanding of aims, objectives, roles and responsibilities
  2. Strong, reflective and responsive approach
  3. Meaningful and tailored performance management systems
  4. Staff development
  5. Focus on outcomes
  6. Strong links between operational and strategic functions
  7. Equal and transparent relationships between partners

It is difficult and demanding but if we are to fully realise the potential of our public services investment in leadership skills is essential.

Good public service leaders are:

  1. Skilled communicators – able to use adaptive language to empathise with others through negotiation and see challenging and complex situations from a range of perspectives. They can demonstrate empathy with other perspectives whilst influencing individual and group positions.
  2. Excellent networkers – able to use their expertise and social and emotional intelligences to gain access to a diverse range of settings, both locally and nationally. They seek out and connect with those who have similar interests to build coalitions and alliances that can lever the outcomes that they desire in different parts or levels within the system.
  3. Strategic in orientation – able to see the ‘big picture’ and understand the contributions that partners can make. These leaders have the ability to get the appropriate expertise and experience around the table and can make the case for collaboration, so individuals can see the value added in working together strategically to generate long-term productive relationships.
  4. Contextually astute – able to understand the relationship between organisational conditions, individuals’ behaviours and outcomes. These leaders understand the power of context and are astute in developing solutions that optimise the capability and capacity residing in specific settings.
  5. Problem solvers – able to think laterally and creatively to seek solutions. These leaders are not linear thinkers. They make connections that most of us fail to see. This means that they tend to be innovative, challenge orthodoxies and push the boundaries of practice.
  6. Self-managing – adept at risk-taking within a framework that understands organisational capacity. These leaders dare to challenge the status quo and take risks without being reckless. When something is not working, or looks problematic, they fail fast and adapt their approach to achieve success.

These ‘softer’ and more nuanced attributes move leadership beyond position and power and the hierarchies of the past that are limiting the implementation of our aspirations for the future.

Cover of the report Key Messages About Public Service Reform in Scotland with What Works Scotland logo

What Works Scotland: Key messages about Public Service Reform in Scotland

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