Why Public Sector Managers Don’t Need Private Sector Boot Camp!

Some commentators in the private sector believe that public sector managers need a jolt of anxiety to shake them out of their complacency and reform public services. This is why they are wrong.


Since the Government’s announcement of the Public Spending Review, I’ve been following online debates about the most effective ways to make savings in the public sector. There have been some great recommendations and observations – particularly here.

But in a number of entries I’ve been struck by a gulf between the private and public sector contributors – particularly their models of service development, and their assumptions about what motivates staff to change.

Occasionally the private sector contributions have been downright persecutory – with envious attacks on public sector staff salaries and pensions. For example, there was a suggestion that every named manager’s budget, performance and spend should be made public on the internet – and that each individual manager should be punished for overspends, or rewarded for savings, through proportional adjustments to their salaries and pensions!

I can understand how in parts of the private sector a finely tuned performance related pay system can spark a creative tension that galvanizes staff to perform well. It suits people with a particular competitive temperament who want to prove themselves. It works where managers are delegated the freedom and resources to make bold decisions within an autonomous area of work. But it’s not so hot for people who are motivated by social values, who work in a culture of thrift where there aren’t the margins to offer motivating reward for high achievement, who make highly complex decisions, and who work in tightly inter-connected services where there isn’t the autonomy to go it alone. And an energizing tension from performance related pay is not the same as a paralyzing anxiety about punitive salary cuts!


I was spurred to write this in response:


“I’d like to pick up on a thread that crops up occasionally here: The assumption that public sector staff are intractable individuals who should be packed off to private sector boot-camp to raise their anxiety levels and to jolt them out of their complacency.

I want to suggest the opposite: that public sector staff are often dedicated individuals working within an impossibly restrictive system, and are often forced to adopt defensive positions because they are exposed to too much anxiety, not too little:

1.) Public sector staff – particularly in the NHS – have been subject to the most extraordinary programme of restructuring over the last 20 years. Much of it has been highly disruptive, badly planned, without clear objectives, and with little learning from previous restructuring programmes. See The NHS Confederation assessment:                “The Triumph of Hope Over Experience.”

2.) Public sector staff implement our messy democratic processes, so they operate in a highly political system. All of the leadership literature says that devolution and empowerment are the cornerstones of staff motivation, yet the reality for public sector staff is that decisions are only devolved for as long as no fuss happens. As soon as controversy stirs, empowerment disappears – anxious MPs or councillors wade in, and the “blame-storming” begins.

As an extreme illustration of this, Ed Balls’ handling of the Baby Peter tragedy has probably done untold damage to the motivation of child protection services across Britain. Back-covering behaviour is modelled from the very top, so it isn’t surprising that it is copied all the way down the food chain.

3.) As that example illustrates, public sector care staff carry out highly stressful tasks. They support vulnerable service users with complex needs, some of whom are at extreme risk. As part of their roles, staff also have to ration resources, and enforce unpopular legislation.

As long ago as 1959 Menzies-Lyth described how staff in the care sector develop unhelpful defensive routines to cope with the stresses of their work.  She suggested they need containment for their anxiety if they are to function in the best interests of their patients. (There’s some background here.). 50 years later many care staff still don’t get the supportive supervision that they need, that would enable them to feel psychologically fit to make rigorous decisions in their roles.

So of course public sector attitudes, processes and overheads have to change – some of the current pension and redundancy terms are unsustainable, and some decision-making is shockingly bureaucratised – but this change needs to be handled with dignity. Staff must not be made scapegoats for long-standing systemic problems.”


Based on these themes, here are 4 factors that would make the public Spending Review more than just a slash-and-burn exercise:

1.)  Restructuring that is coherent, efficient and strategic – designed to enable, streamline, connect and simplify.

2.)  Restructuring that recognises the central importance of supervision in providing ‘containment’ for anxieties in complex services. Not crowd-pleaser restructuring that maxes out frontline staff and strips away their management support.

3.)  The programme of redundancies conducted with dignity and respect for the sizeable chunk of the public sector workforce who are lined up to lose their posts.

4.)  Localisation, commissioning, and procurement policies that do their utmost to allow arms-length decision-making and to decrease meddling from the top. (But see my earlier blog about partnerships to understand why the fragile Government Alliance is unlikely to let go – especially as the next election approaches.)


2 thoughts on “Why Public Sector Managers Don’t Need Private Sector Boot Camp!

  1. James – thank you for this piece. I came across you in the Linkedin discussion thread on “team building” and followed one of you links here. I spent many years as a senor manager in the public service here in Canada and found many of your comments resonated with my experience. Your reference to “implementing our messy democratic processes” is particularly salient. What many don’t realize is that the “measures of success” related to public policy/programs are typically very different for the (often) more simple metrics in the private sector.

    Many years ago there was a concerted effort to recruit private sector managers into the public service as Deputy Ministers (equivalent of your Permanent Secretary) – the thought being that they would inject a dose of private sector reality/innovation/focus/rigor (you get the notion – insert word that you like best). By a number of objective scales these recruits didn’t make the transition – five of the six recruits left within the term of the government that hired them and more than one simply failed. At least a few of them have openly commented on their respect for public sector managers. On the other hand there are many examples of senior public servants who successfully make the shift to the private sector.

    I could prattle on about this subject but will simply say “thank you!:

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