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An introduction to public leadership
An introduction to public leadership

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1.1.1 Value creation in the public sphere

Scrabble letter tiles arranged on a rack to spell the word ‘value’.
Figure 1

What do public leaders do that is different from those in the private or voluntary sector? In other words, is there something distinctive about public leadership?

The role of leadership in the public sphere

Let’s start by looking at the jobs of public managers and professionals. Their role is to work for government (national, devolved or local government) or for public service organisations, and to carry out activities according to the laws of the country and policies and regulations established by their political masters, the elected politicians.

Public managers and professionals often have delegated authority to carry out activities on behalf of the government or head of state. (Think of a police officer’s warrant card which gives them authority to act on behalf of the law.) Unlike private organisations, public service organisations cannot change their fundamental purposes or their ‘markets’, but must serve all within a particular locality or jurisdiction without bias or favour.

There is little room for leadership within the traditional approach to public administration, because the job of public servants is simply to carry out the wishes of the electorate as expressed through the decisions of elected politicians. Politicians decide what is in the public interest; senior policy advisors develop policies, procedures and regulations; and public servants implement them. Job done.

Or is it?

The challenges of public leadership

There are at least two problems with the simple division between elected politicians making decisions and public servants carrying them out.

Firstly, there is an ethical question: is it always right to carry out orders, even when they are morally problematic? The book Unmasking Administrative Evil (2014), by Guy Adams and Danny Balfour, showed how societal horrors like the Holocaust were efficiently implemented through public servants carrying out orders. So ethics has always been central to thinking about public leadership and what is in the public interest.

Secondly, public organisations often have to try to carry out contradictory wishes of different elements of the public, and it is often front-line staff who have to deal with those contradictions and front-line leaders who have to cope with the dilemmas they raise. Should social workers take a child away from a parent who is neglectful, or should they work to try to improve parenting? Should prison officers punish prisoners harshly, or is rehabilitation a more important goal? Should a police officer focus more on crime or on public confidence in policing? Sometimes these goals can be combined, but sometimes they diverge.

If these were easy questions, then being a public leader would be an easy job.

In fact, many of the problems public leaders try to tackle on behalf of society are complex and contested. Not all of them, but many. There are difficult problems to which there are either no easy solutions or where different answers are put forward by different people. How is climate change to be tackled? How will we reduce childhood obesity? How do we address the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe? It is true that elements of these challenges can be broken down and allocated to particular public services, but often they require action beyond government and public services – they require help from citizens, from businesses, from voluntary organisations, sometimes from intergovernmental cooperation. So a public leader often has to think about wider issues beyond their own organisation and about how to involve other people in their purposes.

Elected politicians also have to lead discussion and action, often without knowing what the outcomes might be. Community leaders may have experiences that can provide insights or action, or they may argue for particular moral positions and actions.

The contribution of the public leader

If the issues are complex, then leadership is important in trying to find ways to solve or at least address them. Thinking about ‘the public interest’ is one way to grapple with these matters. It means thinking beyond the interests of one’s own organisation (e.g. a police force, a hospital) and about what will benefit society as a whole, in the long-term, not just the short-term. This is often what motivates public servants – the desire to help the public or to improve society. Leadership means using initiative to put forward ideas and actions to improve society or tackle some of its ills, and mobilising support from others for achieving those goals. Later, you will look further at assessing whether ‘public value’ is created from leadership actions, and how you might go about doing this.

However, a public leader cannot ‘go rogue’ and simply invent their own goals or ways of addressing problems. The law is still paramount; policies have been set democratically, and public leaders are still accountable to those who appoint or elect them. But using initiative to put forward ideas to shape how policies are implemented, to constructively raise questions and look for innovative ways of addressing new problems or old problems in new ways – these can all be part of the role of being a public leader.

Those who offer public leadership from a community or civic role often have to lead in a different way. A church leader or Greenpeace activist will not have formal public authority to shape debates and outcomes (they may have authority within their own organisation but not in terms of public leadership). Therefore, they may exercise leadership through moral force or social action, or by finding other ways to persuade and mobilise others in relation to key issues in the public sphere.