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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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2.2.3 Leadership roles in change and innovation

Where does change come from? Understanding this helps leaders to stay focused on key issues and on their role, relative to others, in leading and managing change. Warren Bennis, a key scholar on leadership, wrote that ‘learning to lead is … learning to manage change’ (Bennis, 1989, p. 145). For a leader, change may be imposed by others or it may be self-generated, but either way it can be hard work as well as energising. Understanding the sources and context of change will help to manage the process and mobilise people to the task.

Political leaders have a key role in creating change in public organisations. They may promise ‘reform’ or ‘modernisation’ or ‘reducing inefficiency’ as part of their bid to get elected, as part of their compact with the electorate, and the electorate may vote for them in part because of these promises. Once in office, they may pass parliamentary, assembly or council legislation to enact major structural changes and policy. Just think about the legislation to devolve health and social care to Greater Manchester, or the abolition of police authorities and their replacement with Police and Crime Commissioners. Political leaders use financial resources to shape change in public services: austerity budgets may shrink public service organisations and, in some cases, change what they are able to offer as services; meanwhile, other areas may expand their remit with additional funding.

So politicians have a key role in shaping change. Paul ’t Hart argues that they have a key role in leadership in two ways. Firstly, they can bring about change through constructing identities, as they ‘attempt to weave believable narratives about who and what it is they embody and claim to represent’ (’t Hart, 2014, p. 23). This may include narratives of change – think of Angela Merkel in Germany and the refugee and migrant influx, or the former Mayor of London bringing in congestion charges (both actions have brought about substantial consequences for public services). Secondly, political leaders may bring about change through changing and developing policies, often acting as policy entrepreneurs. They are in some senses typical entrepreneurs who spot opportunities not about business but about policy and politics. ’t Hart notes that ‘policy entrepreneurship is about the embracing of novel policy ideas, selling them to diverse constituencies, building powerful coalitions around them, and seizing the moment when opportunities [arise]’ (’t Hart, 2014, p. 26).

Politicians often have to lead change by responding to emerging problems or changes in society. Climate change, growing awareness of the problems of obesity, better understanding of domestic and family violence, increased terrorist activities – complex issues like these may mean that new policies have to be shaped and new budget allocations made. In dealing with such problems, for which answers are not clear, politicians can play a vital role in convening stakeholders to discuss and better understand how they might be tackled. They can also mobilise people to pay attention and start trying to tackle these issues.

In theory, politicians lead changes in vision, goals and policies, and it is up to senior managers to lead the implementation of those policies and for front-line leaders to carry them out. Public officials can sometimes feel as though they are on the receiving end of policies they did not devise. But a public value perspective suggests that public officials can themselves have a valuable role. They may have to work out how to address the policy strategically and operationally. They may have ideas of their own about how new services can be developed or current services improved. Public officials can be entrepreneurs and innovators too – but have to operate within the authorising environment noted in public value.

Civic leaders, coming from campaigning, community or other civil society groups, often have key roles in initiating change. Being close to the communities they serve, they may pick up early warning signs of change, or be aware of where current service provision is not meeting needs. Civic leaders may challenge and campaign to get politicians and public officials to change policies and practices. They may use all sorts of activities to attract attention and support, and can often campaign in a single-focused way to bring about change. They can hold government to account. They can themselves create innovations in services which are adopted longer-term by public organisations when the benefits become clear.

So, there are many ‘players’ jostling for attention, resources and action in the spaces of bringing about change. It is not always an orderly planned set of processes taking place entirely inside organisations. There are too many voices with views for that to be the case.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that not every idea or proposal for change will lead to improvement or add public value. Change and innovation are activities; whether they result in improvement is a separate question, whatever the intention behind them. For example, Christopher Pollitt (2007), a scholar researching public service reform, has described the continual changes to the NHS as ‘re-disorganisation’, and cautions against rapid, repeated restructuring of public organisations.