Learning together about leadership in public services

Why focus on leadership?

At CES, we work to apply new ways of thinking and working with complex problems to advance social change. Over the past number of years we’ve looked at research literature on implementing public service reform and the factors that make it successful. Our ‘Primer on Implementing Whole of Government Approaches’ focused on the challenge of joining up government departments, services and policies. More recently we have begun to work with government departments in Ireland and Northern Ireland on a new programme of work called Goal which supports public service reform agendas in both Ireland and Northern Ireland in areas such as health, education and mental health. A consistent finding from research, and our work in this area is that leadership is critical in both implementing change and reform, but also in making a difference for people using public services.

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The CES Leader’s Digest

We have developed the CES Leader’s Digest to explore leadership in the public services from the perspective of those engaged in this challenging work. Gathering reflections, insights and advice from leaders with experience in the field, this blog series draws together wisdom from the literature and from practice to stimulate reflection, discussion and debate among readers. The aim of this series is to learn together about how effective leadership in the public services can be achieved.

Each installment tackles leadership issues for which there are no easy answers, and roots them in the real-life context of public services in Ireland and Northern Ireland. During the series, we will consider the relationship between different types of leadership in the public services, the tensions that can arise between them and how these tensions can be resolved. We will invite guest contributors from the public service in Ireland, Northern Ireland and internationally to offer their insights from experience on key topics discussed in the literature and to open a wider discussion with readers on leadership in the public services.

What’s different about leadership in public services?

Leaders in the public services work to address some of the most complex issues in contemporary society. Their work may involve alleviating poverty and how it affects families, coming up with approaches to tackle homelessness, to encourage healthy behaviours, or to reduce road deaths. There are no straightforward answers to these problems. The context for the work may provide further challenges, where there are often budgetary constraints, department mergers or restructures, or political instability.

Getting to grips with these issues requires an understanding of the perspectives of citizens, advocacy groups, experts, businesses and other areas of the public services and government. Leaders in the public services need to be politically aware, able to work with different sorts of people and organisations, to evaluate different types of information and not only reach decisions but inspire others to work to a particular vision. This is not easy when there are a diverse range of powerful actors to involve, when the ground is shifting and under the spotlight of the media.

We know from our work that leadership in the public services is different from leadership in other contexts in many ways:

  • The aim is to work for the public good and public value, rather than to make a profit
  • There are a range of different stakeholders in public service work who can have conflicting wants and needs, all of which must be heard and managed
  • Leadership is exercised in a very complex context where coalition or power-sharing governments may influence or limit what is possible
  • There can be frequent and relatively abrupt changes in leadership resulting from political instability and changes in government. Leadership changes are often accompanied by a change in focus and direction, which can be disruptive and unsettling
  • Leaders in the public services are subject to significant public and media scrutiny and are expected to act transparently. Leaders act in a context where any of their decisions may be subject to a Freedom of Information Request. As a result, public services can become ‘risk averse’ which limits the opportunity to experiment and try new things.
  • Leaders must operate according to principles and regulations which don’t apply in the private sector, particularly around hiring, assigning and promoting staff, commissioning work and procurement.
  • The success of public services is difficult to measure as the goals do not lend themselves to objective measurement; but the failures are all too clear. When things go wrong, leadership often takes the blame. Perceived failures can have serious consequences for career progression, and can contribute to risk aversion.

Over the coming months, we will look to the literature on public service reform and experiences from public service leaders to explore a number of key questions. What is the role of leadership in policy design and implementation? What is collaborative leadership and can it work in public services? How can we build and develop leaders, at all levels in the system?

Over to you

Have a view on what you’ve read or would like to read in future issues of the Leaders Digest? Let us know in the comments below or send us an e-mail at