In conversation with Benjamin Taylor, Chief Executive, Public Service Transformation Academy

  1. What are top priorities for the Public Service Transformation Academy over the coming year?

We’re launching our Public Service: State of Transformation process and report, looking for the true Transformation examples and opportunities amongst all the chaos and challenges. If anyone has a theme, case study, or example they’d like to offer, let me know! There will be a discussion event end of November, an open survey of the sector, and a conference and short incisive publication next May.

We continue to improve and extend our ‘jewel in the crown’ offer, the Cabine Office Commissioning Academy,  which is a powerful way for small groups of leaders or leaders of a whole place to learn together with a focus on real practical change.

And adding key offers to meet areas of need in service of our mission ‘to help public services transform themselves’. This includes system leadership (so much talk, so little progress!), digital, channel shift, our brilliant Service Transformation Programme training and Leading Transformation blended learning, and more.

As a social enterprise with zero external funding, we must remain relevant and vital to survive. We’re unique, as a practitioner organisation with no territory to defend, no group to represent, so we can say what we think and identify what works.

  1. What unique challenges does the public sector present for effective leadership?

I’m not sure we’re so special – we are more diverse in business models than ever (and the PSTA serves every public service, not only public bodies). Clearly, austerity and the need to do more with less are tough, regulatory requirements and statutory services are complex, and the range of services provided by your average public service organisation dwarfs most things in the private sector.  No wonder we are often conglomerates more than simple and straightforward organisations! Fundamentally, we have political Governance and must respond to the public as our masters as well as customers, which is why we like to talk about the citizen. And we have far more power to intervene upstream, to affect the causes of our problems, and enable and empower.

We also have the capacity to disable, disempower, patronise, create dependency, ration public goods, and create bad feedback loops. So I think more than in any other sector, leaders need discipline rigour, need to give clear boundaries and allow people to exercise professional freedom within them, and need to do the hard work of thinking through the implications of their demands and requests, thinking how they’ll shape the recipients, and hold people to account (including giving bad news). And the easy but scary work of understanding the real experiences of their employees and citizens. We need leaders who are tough, compassionate, and deeply intelligent.

  1. Do you think the nature of public sector leadership has changed in recent years?

It’s a cliché that leaders can no longer stand on their professional expertise, but no less true for that. Leaders now have to handle true complexity and bump up against the limits of their immediate authority and the rules and systems which structure the behaviour of their organisations and those of their partners. It’s a tough ask, but they are well paid and have the potential for enormous achievements and deep satisfaction. Perhaps most of all, leaders now won’t survive long or contribute well without humility and a learning approach.

  1. Which one recommendation would you make for all leaders in the public sector?

Think things through. How is my action or request going to be received in this person’s world, how will it shape their world, and how will it impact relations between their world and mine in the future. Oh, and go spend real time on the front line, regularly.

  1. What will the public sector leader of the future look like?

Unassuming, tough, insightful, inspiring by what they get done, creating clarity of work and systems that match work to the best of what people and organisations can do.