Leadership: but not as we know it

Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Working in the open

Lee Waters AM is running a panel for the Welsh Government looking into digital transformation in the public sector. He’s been blogging as they go along. This is all positive stuff. It’s positive that the government set up this panel, it’s positive that Lee is working in the open and there are some good people on the panel with him. The most recent pair of Lee’s posts concern leadership. One is titled “it’s about leadership innit?” the other is “Does Wales need a chief digital officer?

Is it all about leadership?

What Lee means by a Chief Digital Officer for Wales is a “‘guiding mind’ for digital developments across all public services to spread best practice, or to set digital service standards, or veto duplication and waste across the public sector.”

And as regards leadership the panel is apparently “considering recommending developing a mixed model of support for all senior leaders, including training courses and providing Agile coaches and mentors”.

All these things are important. Public servants in Wales need the right tools and skills to be able to operate in the digital age. The public sector needs to focus on standards (fix the plumbing is the cry we currently hear from MHCLG in Westminster).

Power and accountability do not a leader make

This framing of the importance and role of “leaders” needs some challenge. We are used to seeing the role of people with power and accountability as key in our system and synonymous with leadership. This makes sense if you picture public services as they appear on org charts, neat hierarchies, like machines with interlocking cogs.

It’s complex

Of course we all know that public services in Wales are actual complex networks of human beings with multiple connections within and across organisations and even (whisper it) with citizens. Effective leadership in networks is distributed and not, necessarily, correlated with power and accountability.

The culture, the norms of behaviour, emerge from this complex network of relationships. Public servants are constantly negotiating and renegotiating with others close to them in the network about the right way to behave, the right things to prioritise, the right tools to use. This is why change is hard. The “senior leaders” that the panel has focused on are part of this network but they do not control it and though their power allows them to make significant interventions in the network (moving resources around, placing or removing legal constraints around people) they can not predict with any confidence the impact those interventions will have on the wider network.

If we really want to improve public services through the better use of digital tools we need to find ways to enable all (or a large proportion of all) public servants to change their behaviour together.

We need approaches that can be delivered at scale.

This is not an argument against training people with power in the hierarchy. We probably should. Leaders, in the hierarchical sense, will have a role. But leaders, in the hierarchical sense, cannot change the behaviours across the wider network.

Wales (sort of) gets complexity

(after all most people in the management sphere get introduced to complexity via a Welsh word: Cynefin)

Wales should be well set up for this. In my experience public servants in Wales talk the language of complexity far more than in other parts of the UK. Wales has legislative frameworks (most notably though not exclusively the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act) which aim to push public servants in the direction of operating in networks rather than silos.

If we start to visualise public services as this complex network of connections between humans we can start to imagine the sort of interventions that may be helpful. We need to enable individuals to negotiate new approaches with those close to them in their networks. There are digital and technical implications here: open data, open infrastructure based on APIs, interoperability between hard ICT systems. We have argued that Wales should see open data as the core infrastructure for co-production and collaboration around services. There are skills implications: public servants across Wales need better data, design and iterative development skills.

Your programme governance arrangement will not work here

Most crucially the whole network must be reshaped, by the people within the network, iteratively and carefully. This can’t be delivered from the metaphorical top (really just an isolated bit of the network) by traditional programme management or by throwing some chief executives through a hybrid learning and development programme. It needs distributed, networked, leadership. It needs those with power and accountability to share their power even while they remain accountable. It needs political backing for approaches that will sometimes fail, sometimes succeed and not be evenly distributed.

That is a significant challenge.

But if it was easy the government wouldn’t need a panel to tell it how to do it.


I work at The Satori Lab we also host ODI-Cardiff.

We provide a range of services to help people deliver excellent public services in the connected age.

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