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Learning, leadership development and talent management are not luxuries, they are essential


The public sector in the UK is undergoing a radical change. According to the CIPD, 850,000 jobs will disappear between 2010 and 2017 – around 15% of the workforce.

Research from the CIPD and the Public Sector People Managers' Association (PPMA) shows values-based leadership is required to deliver the objectives of reduced spending and more customer-focused service provision. This is contingent on making use of employees on the frontline.

Research from Hay Group in 2011 revealed a crisis in confidence in public sector leaders' ability to effectively manage the impact of cuts and deliver on future strategies. The survey found that a majority of public sector respondents do not believe their senior leaders have the skills to manage change.

So what can it do to catch up with the private sector? There are many strategies that are common to both sectors, yet are usually applied only in the private sector. Tesco, Asda, McDonald's and Lloyds Banking Group invest significantly in their leadership capability as a key driver for competitive advantage. Graduate programmes nurture leaders of tomorrow, using partnerships with academic institutions to provide learning opportunities for leaders.

Within the public sector, leadership development is largely seen as the domain of senior management. Often, little development is offered to middle or junior managers. In Germany, there is a much closer relationship between the public and private sectors and the trade unions. While it is difficult to draw upon empirical evidence, it is clear the German economy has weathered the economic storms better than most.

We need to start with a core assessment of what it takes to be an effective public sector leader. In many ways, the attributes are no different to those in the private sector: a clear vision and strategy, a strong values-led operating culture, engagement with staff, plus demonstrating agility and flexibility to deliver services differently in the increasingly commercialised public sector.

There is one area of the public sector overcoming the leadership challenge. The armed forces have the best leaders in the UK when it comes to managing change, according to research by Orion Partners. The study reveals strong leadership has helped 49% of armed forces personnel understand why change is good for them - the highest proportion of any professional group in the UK, where the national average is just 35%. What is it that they are doing well? According to the research it is 'brain friendly' leadership. The best leaders at managing complex organisational reforms are those who understand how people react to change and help employees embrace it by showing them why it is good for them.

HR has a key role to play, as part of organisational development and talent management, to ensure every leader is supported. However, it remains to be seen if public sector HR has the capability to drive and support these initiatives - one of our biggest challenges. Hay concluded that "many organisations are overlooking the leadership and workforce development strategies crucial to success in a changed landscape. These need to be reviewed as a matter of urgency". Learning, succession planning, leadership development and talent management are not luxuries; they are essential. These factors will influence which public sector organisations will improve sustainably in these tough times, and which ones will lose talent, quality and ultimately, public confidence.

Jabbar Sardar, director of human resources and organisational development, Cafcass