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Looking At Public Value and Public Leadership

Public value. Public leadership. Inter ““ organisational networking. These are all terms that anyone involved in public sector management is undoubtedly familiar with. But how much do we actually understand the demands that these concepts place upon us? At the annual conference of the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), Professor John Bennington argued persuasively for the careful handling of change in the public sector, saying we risk having it all come to a sticky conclusion.

A Nice, Slow Pint

When talking about management, Profssor Bennington recalls a story of a visit to Dublin. When waiting for a train to Galway, our hero wanders into the local pub and asks for a pint of Guinness. The barman offered him two choices; a quick pint, which is drawn all at once and, whilst it will taste nice it will not be a “true” pint; or the slow pint, where after each third is pulled the barman lets it settle, then wipes of the head, carefully creates the shamrock on the top and brings it over. The potential pint- drinker asks for the slow pint and the barman says to him: “Well, why don”t you have a fast one while you wait?”

Apart from the humour and the potential for a somewhat sleepy trip to Galway, the story does have an apt message about the nature of management and the fact that patience in formulating change of the nature that is imminent in FE is indeed a virtue. Management, particularly in the public sector, is never merely a technical matter, as can be seen by the etymology of “management” ““ the root being the word for “handling”. The most that can be hoped, claims Professor Bennington, is to steer those being managed as best as one can.

Hot Air and RAF Pilots

This Labour Government can never be faulted for lacking in that ill ““ defined foggy concept, “vision”. Paul Mackney, the General Secretary of NATFHE, commented that the Government have “more visions than Mother Theresa”, whilst Professor Bennington suggested that another version might be to say that they had “more pilots than the RAF”.

And although having vision is laudable, there is indeed a danger that it has bcome a goal in and of itself. Management of change, which so many of these visions call for, is a “dynamic and volatile process” according to Professor Bennington, who calls vision without authority just so much “hot air and dreams”. Management is the only way to unify the vision and the implementation.

A Complex Structure ““ Does it All Have to Go?

The complex interaction between so many different interested agencies, and the variety of authorities (the below authorities, users, citizens, communities; the alongside authorities, partners and stakeholders; and the above authorities, such as God, the Queen, Parliament) mean that it becomes more than just a question of tearing apart what already is.

The question Professor Bennington raises is a fascinating one. Is change really necessary? Or is “change” now viewed as a “one size fits all” solution, an end rather than a means to a defined goal? He argues against change for change’s sake, stating that the growth of knowledge and wisdom that comes from continuity is often more valuable and harder to replace than the cosmetic benefits from mass reform when only tweaking is necessary.

Why, What, How, and the Ready ““ Fire ““ Aim Approach

Why Change?

Professor Bennington states that the current motto when approaching reform could be summarised by calling it the “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach, which holds obvious dangers. He urges a careful analysis of the context for change, the culture and causes of the problem being addressed before launching into a programme that intervenes and restructures, often aggressively. Turning to biology, this could be called the “diagnosis before action” approach.

What to Change?

Once change has been decided upon ““ a fairly swift process at present ““ the next step is to determine what needs to be altered. Here it is vital to have a clear outcome in mind, rather than just the notion that if the changes enacted are right then the outcome will be too. Any “reformer” also needs to pay close attention to the value to the public of any alteration, otherwise one of the fundamental determining factors of the public sector will have been ignore.

How to Change?

When the Government have moved on from visions to actual action, Professor Bennington makes the claim that there policy is “less carrot and stick, more carrot and cemtex”, meaning that they take a fairly crude approach. And whilst the need to set targets, use “name and shame” schemes, league tables and so forth are all steps in the right direction, they are not enough if all that has gone before is ignored. Professor Bennington also called for more funding and focus to be paid to the frontline services (a statement that has become increasingly frequent).

But the most important determining factor for any reform in the public sector has to heed the demands of the public for value in their services. Without this, the change is doomed to failure before it even begins.

Jethro Marsh

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