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Creative leadership through tough times

Brendan Martin, 19 May 2015

I have worked with public servants in more than 70 countries for the last three decades and I have yet to hear one complain that their budget is too large.

Usually that is because it isn’t, and some have blamed any failing in their service on resource shortages, often backing their claims with plenty of evidence.

But most find ways to make too little go a long way, a commitment that prevents some  services collapsing completely.

That spirit will be sorely tested in Britain and internationally over the coming years, with an ever-wider gap between resource supply and service demand.

How will public servants respond?

The answer, according to the commentator David Walker on the morning after the recent parliamentary election in Britain, is that “the next five years are grit and sawdust.”

Writing for the Guardian newspaper’s Public Leaders Network, of which he is an editor, Walker added:

“Austerity is a permanent condition. So today’s watchword has to be: keep your head down and get by. All around there’s a sense of shrinking into a more limited, circumspect role.”

If Walker’s first point is right ---- that “austerity is a permanent condition” -- then we must all make sure that his second is wrong.

To “keep your head down and get by” is the antithesis of leadership. Leaders must be transformative, and if we are not focused on the opportunities in the present situation we will certainly be overwhelmed by the threats.

By “leaders” in this context I do not mean people at or towards the top of hierarchical public bodies, although they certainly have particular responsibilities.

I mean people at all levels in all kinds of organisations and networks, whose vision and capacity to collaborate enable them collectively to create the energy that powers creativity.

And, contrary to Walker’s gloomy expectations, those leaders are everywhere, and their presence is increasingly evident, especially at local level but also nationally -- and, indeed, internationally.

A couple of weeks ago Public World co-organised with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Collaborate a roundtable that explored what international development and British public service policy and practice could learn from each other.

As a social enterprise that grew out of the work of its founders in international development  and is now being transformed by the British public service specialists who have joined our team, we knew the discussion would explore a rich seam.

So it proved, although we hardly began to scratch the surface in what we hope will lead to deeper and wider collaboration.

With participation from so wide a range of organisations as the World Bank, the Cabinet Office, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Leadership Centre at the Local Government Association and more, diverse perspectives were offered.

None of them included battening down the hatches for business as usual but on a reduced scale. Rather there was a shared commitment to exploring more adaptive, creative and participatory approaches to both development and public service practice.

East to say, harder to do, and fraught with danger when some politicians and public agencies use such terms as ‘co-production’ as a rationale for abandoning state responsibility rather than reinventing it.

So we need a movement that roots a new kind of public service in new kinds of relationships — between users and providers, between state and non-state agencies, and across professional and hierarchical boundaries.

The job of public leaders today is not to retreat from that challenge but to embrace it. Austerity will indeed finish off the old model, but what replaces it is up to us.

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