Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
21 Mar 2010

Feeling the strain in the public sector: leadership development seen as solution

21 Mar 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Public sector fear

While the recession has hit the private sector hardest in terms of redundancies and cutbacks, only half of the public sector managers in the survey rated their overall well-being at work positively, compared to 62% of their counterparts in the private sector.  Those in the public sector were more likely to report they suffered from stress and that conflict and bullying were common in their organisations. 

It's not surprising that public sector managers are more pessimistic about the future than their private sector counterparts. The private sector hopes it is over the worst and economic indicators suggest a tentative, albeit slow recovery, while much of the public sector faces a pay freeze and significant cuts (sooner or later, whichever party is elected) to address a record budget deficit. 

The forthcoming election and potential change of government also has particular impact on the public sector. Nearly three quarters of public sector managers noted this as one of the biggest issues they currently face compared to 26% in the private sector.

Managing change - biggest challenge

The research findings raise questions as to how the public sector will cope with the major changes that will be required. Managing change is reported to be the biggest current challenge for the public sector (by 76% of public sector managers compared to 53% in the public sector). The findings suggest that change is less well-managed, fast or successful in the public sector. Moreover, with one quarter of public sector workers already reporting that the pace and extent of change is a major stressor for them (compared to 19% in the private sector) any further changes will need to be managed with care and sensitivity.

Our research suggests that the key to managing change and addressing engagement and well-being is clear and effective leadership. The survey found that many public sector managers lack faith in their leadership. Only 46% described the reputation of their senior board as positive or very positive, compared with 63% of private sector managers.  Moreover, while two-thirds of private sector managers feel their leaders put the organisation’s espoused values into practice, barely half (53%) of public sector managers say the same. 

Leadership development

On top of this, public sector managers are more likely to report a general lack of support, poor communications, greater bureaucracy, less control over their teams and lack of clarity in their roles. Hardly surprising then that well-being and performance is suffering. 

Staggeringly, over half (51%) of public sector managers said under-performance was not tackled at all well in their organizations, compared with 34% in the private sector. This is an issue that urgently needs addressing. According to the Office for National Statistics between 1997 and 2007 public-sector productivity fell by 3.2% - and this was despite rapid growth in public spending. Now the public sector is faced with cuts, under-performance cannot be tolerated and urgently needs to be confronted. 

On a positive note, public sector managers report that leadership development is one of the most common strategies their organisations are adopting for the future. Ensuring this investment is translated into increased engagement and productivity will remain a key priority.