As a result, public sector bodies have now entered a period of internal consultation, discussion and debate, focussing on how they can make the required savings—whilst at the same time maintaining the quality and consistency of services that society demands. None are underestimating the magnitude of the task ahead and the challenges that will be encountered along the way.
However, the question needs to be asked: is the public sector equipped to make these changes? Multiple factors could combine to derail the cuts, such as failure to retain appropriately qualified individuals, a lack of key skills amongst the broader managerial population, a failure to successfully articulate the ‘direction of travel’ to a diverse stakeholder group or even a straightforward stand-off with the unions, during which no progress can be made. Public sector leaders are currently planning for all these eventualities in order to ensure that changes to their organisational or departmental budgets are made quickly, cleanly and efficiently, with the minimum of disruption to the services they are required to deliver.
All these factors—as well as a multitude of others—can be grouped into three key categories: first, leadership capability, second, managerial competence and effectiveness and third, communication and engagement. If these issues are addressed, any change has a far higher likelihood of success.
Starting with the issue of leadership capability, strong, directional leaders, who have the ability to determine what type of organisational structure, will be required. Leaders must be able to identify talented senior team members and, just as importantly, bind them to a compelling vision of the future. Bold steps are required to navigate public sector organisations through the litany of challenges ahead. The public sector as a whole has a number of exceptional leaders, but it needs more. Successful initiatives need to be replicated and new, creative ideas put forward. Simply making a percentage of staff redundant from each department, or attempting to drive down cost by substituting cheaper alternatives for goods and services, will not create the sustainable and embedded change needed. Leaders must lead in a manner very different to how they have worked in the past.
The public sector managerial cohort, so often (somewhat unfairly) perceived as part of the problem, will also need to develop new skills and capabilities. As well as being asked to do more with less, they will need to work more closely with partners—be they contractors, the third-sector or other local public-sector organisations. Commercial skills will be at a premium as both the initial purchase and ongoing maintenance of quality surrounding public sector services becomes ever more important. As well as these hard skills, an approach that creates genuine teamwork and staff engagement will be necessary. With employee resource likely to be cut-back, it will be the role of the managers within an organisation to ensure that remaining employees are able to pull together with purpose and clarity whilst facing the task ahead. Ensuring that those leaving the organisation are well-supported will reflect positively on the employer and will ensure that those staying will not be distracted, bemoaning the injustices served on their erstwhile colleagues.
And it is this positive engagement that will be crucial to ensuring success. Research has shown time and again that levels of absence through sickness and stress increase when organisations implement change programmes poorly. Employees at all levels are likely to express their dissatisfaction through either leaving to join other organisations, or (often far worse) a withdrawal of discretionary effort that has repercussions across the system, affecting how much work can be undertaken and creating a negative spiral as those who are, and are not, engaged in the work at hand polarise at opposite ends of the spectrum. Clear and consistent communication, explaining what has to be done and why, giving a full context for the changes and ensuring that questions are answered quickly and candidly will help ensure that all employees understand the changes and their role within them. Dispelling the uncertainty surrounding change makes it easier to deal with.
The sector stands on the verge of changes that will define public service provision for a generation. How leaders, managers and employees respond to the challenges and issues that will place obstacles in the way of this change will determine whether they are likely to succeed, on time and on budget. Managing the people agenda within the public sector, sharing leadership success, inspiring managers and motivating front-line staff will all be at the forefront of effective change implementation as the new dawn breaks.
Owen Morgan is commercial director of HR Consulting at Penna