Lessons for leaders: how top public servants can chart a course to more responsive government

By on 03/05/2023 | Updated on 03/05/2023
A photograph of a compass
Photo by Mario Aranda from Pixabay

GGF research reveals that leaders are more confident in their public service organisation’s performance than other staff. Experts set out how they can share what they know to better deliver

The results of the Responsive Government Survey reveal the pressures that public servants around the world face in 2023. The responses from public servants – across all geographies – reveal that public and civil servants’ confidence in government responsiveness is declining.

Overall, fewer officials agree that their organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to change. Confidence that public services can be improved has also fallen – and there is concern over the impact of electoral politics on delivery. Officials are also less confident in their organisation’s contingency plans in the era of ‘permacrisis’ – an extended period of instability and insecurity.

However, across many elements of responsiveness, an interesting contrast between leaders and other respondent groups emerges. Leaders feel more positively about their organisation’s performance, future, and employee morale than their rank-and-file colleagues.

While 63% of global civil servants say that their organisation adapts what they do based on what works, this proportion rises to 72% of civil service leaders, and more leaders agree morale is high in their organisation (64%) than the overall response score (54%).

Leaders are also more positive about how they perceive themselves to be performing. For example, 56% of managers and non-managers agree that leaders are open to doing things in new ways to deliver better public services. This rises to 73% of leaders, suggesting that leaders could do more to communicate and demonstrate their openness.

These higher scores indicate the role that positive, bold leaders have to play in building governmental resilience through culture change.

In practice, this means injecting confidence across public sector organisations by setting a clear purpose for teams that aligns with overall organisational aims.

Upcoming webinar: Find out more about the Responsive Government Survey

Leaders ‘need to be aware of what their workforce is thinking’

Leaders need to show that government projects and initiatives address the challenges that citizens – including their employees – currently face. This purposeful leadership was a major factor in the rapid pandemic response, fuelled by collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and agility.

Many public servants responding to the survey call for such bold leadership. One respondent from the United States says “transformational leadership” is needed to provide an “empowering vision for people to have opportunities beyond the hamster wheel” of day-to-day duties.

Another respondent in the US urged organisational leaders to “understand the workflow” of their organisation – a point Michael Wernick, the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa and former cabinet secretary of Canada, also makes. “These findings reflect that leaders have more peripheral vision of an organisation, which gives them more awareness of the efforts and initiatives underway,” he says. “What that means for leaders is that it’s really important to develop awareness of how their workforce is perceiving things – to take the pulse of their organisation regularly and to deliver proof points to them. You have to not only communicate, but also deliver.”

Professor Alexander Evans, who teaches public policy at the London School of Economics and is a former strategy director at the UK Cabinet Office, says the higher confidence rating of leaders in the survey could also reflect that they are best placed to understand the bigger picture in organisations. “It’s like setting off for what should be a five-hour drive – but you know it’s going to be seven hours because the traffic’s awful and the weather’s bad.

“But as a leader, you know about the weather, and you know about the traffic. Many other people in their organisation won’t know about that. So if you’re sitting on the board or you’re on the executive committee, it’s not that you’re going to be in the sunny uplands, but you’re much more sighted on the scale of the challenges – but also the potential activities that can remedy them.”

However, Anders Persson, Sweden-based public sector digitalisation expert at PA, which undertook the research with Global Government Forum, points out that leaders can be detached from the actual capabilities of their organisations.

“Given the high discrepancy between staff and leaders in most dimensions from resources to strategy, leaders need to step up. In Sweden, better digital leadership is a key focus for development.”

The lesson is, that by sharing insights with colleagues at all levels, those in senior positions can become an inspirational force within and beyond their organisations. Through purposeful, positive leadership, they can empower team members to think differently rather than simply churning out policy based on accepted norms.

Such an approach will build morale, strengthen team resilience, and support the improvement of public services.

Read in full: Responsive Government Survey

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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