New report, same old thinking

A new report entitled Whole Systems Go! Improving Leaderhsip Across the Whole Public Service System has been written in response to a broader Cabinet Office enquiry into what it would take to improve leadership in the public sector. Published by the National School of Government and hosted by the Warwick Business School, it claims to set out new thinking on leadership. It contains seven propositions for making such improvements which include ‘the need for new paradigms’ such as thinking of governance as ‘a complex adaptive system’, calling for ‘adaptive leadership’ and the development of programmes to resolve ‘whole system challenges’. The difference the report brings, according to the authors, is that where other leadership programmes stress the importance of the individual, this one stresses the importance of the team; where other programmes value theory, this one values practice/problem, where other programmes take leaders off on retreat, this one takes them on to the front line.

According to the report, new leaders need good personal skills (self-control, listening to and influencing others), inter-personal skills (being able to get ‘buy-in’), being able to read people and situations (this is an analytical rather than an influential skill, according to the report), building alignment and alliances, and strategic direction and scanning. These are offered as a diagnostic tool to organisations to assess whether their leaders have these skills. They also require ‘whole systems thinking’

Whole systems thinking and action includes the capacity to analyse and understand the inter-connections, interdependencies and inter-actions between complex issues, across multiple boundaries (p6)

There is lots to admire about the report, not least the review of the difference between management in the public sector and that in the private sector, and the literature review on leadership is helpful. But the recommendations for leadership development largely pivot around the idea of getting the ‘whole system’ in the room. The response to increased complexity and the demand from government for ‘joined up thinking’ is to simply go on expanding the number of things that a leader needs to take into account, and thus expand the repertoire of skills that they are then presumed to need to do this. In rereading the list of skills that good leaders in the public sector are supposed to have set out above, are there any that an astute reader could not have guessed without reading the report?

There is something of a formula to much contemporary thinking about management and leadership, and it develops like this. We are in new times which demand new skills. Previous management/leadership development programmes have not acknowledged quite how complex the world is. In order to do this we need to take even more factors into account and teach an expanded skill set to managers. Everything is a problem, even if it s a ‘hairy’ or a ‘wicked’ one, which can find a solution. When we implement such programmes this will foster a culture of continuous improvement and learning which will deliver measurable improvements for the public across the whole public sector.

A number of other reports have taken exactly the same approach.Take, for example, the 2005 OECD publication Modernising Government: The Way Forward, which reflects upon two decades of OECD member states reforming their public services. The report contains some important and interesting observations about how context-dependent organisational change is, how difficult it is to import prescriptions from the private sector wholesale into the public sector, and how problematic performance measurement is for non-routine services. The way forward anticipated in the title, however, is for governments to consider wholes:

It is important to see it (the wider governance structure) not as a series of separate entities, but rather as a whole interconnected system: reforming one part of the system can have unintended impacts on another part. (OECD, 2005: 22)

Unwittingly, the authors of the OECD report quoted above put their finger accurately on the problem of prescriptions for change based on systems thinking, that of unintended consequences and the difficulty of ascertaining where the ‘system’ begins and ends. Inherent in this kind of prescription is the assumption that methods that have proved very effective in biology and engineering are also useful for thinking about processes of human interaction:

It is not a matter of one-off ‘reform’ but of having a whole-of-government public management policy capability that enables governments to make adjustments with the total system in mind. (Ibid: 23)

The recommendation is predicated on the idea that it is somehow possible to get the ‘total system in mind’ when undertaking any reform, and that somehow those responsible for bringing about the required change are not part of the ‘system’ themselves. The authors of the OECD report, like many scholars drawing on systems theory, imagine themselves to be in some kind of unique vantage point, using what the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (2005) referred to as a ‘spectator theory of knowledge’, standing beyond the boundary to make ‘adjustments’ to the ‘system’ with the whole in mind.

The way that the report from the National School of Government describes the role of leadership certainly makes it sound more complicated, but how it reflects thinking derived from complex adaptive systems theory, as it claims, is much harder to discern. This new report contains a lot of old thinking.

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