Research amongst public sector leaders highlights importance of involving staff in order to create a customer-centric culture

A new model of values-based leadership needs to be developed across the public sector if the twin objectives of reducing spending and providing more customer-focused services are to be met. That’s according to new research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA), exploring how chief executives and HR directors in a range of local service organisations are leading efforts to transform service delivery in line with the Government’s localism agenda.

The report is based on interviews with leaders from 14 local service organisations including local government, police and fire services, and highlights the priority chief executives are placing on involving staff in creating new values that underpin the new customer-centric service delivery cultures they are trying to build. The research demonstrates that a radical re-engineering of public service delivery, coupled with cost cutting, can’t happen overnight – it involves changing public sector values and culture, as well as how people are led and managed from the boardroom to the front line.

Leading culture change: employee engagement and public service transformation considers how public service leaders are redesigning their organisations to enable them to deliver services in different ways. Many of the leaders interviewed have recognised that if public services are to engage staff to innovate and respond to changing customer requirements, then leadership can no longer remain in the realm of the executive board alone.

There is also widespread agreement among public sector leaders that a new employment deal needs to be articulated, since many of the characteristics of the traditional psychological contract in local government – including job security and a final salary pension scheme – have either disappeared or are in the process of disappearing. There is consensus that the new deal should be underpinned by greater flexibility and autonomy for individuals, skills and employability development and better quality leadership and people management.

The research used as its framework the four key enablers of engagement identified by David MacLeod in his report Engaging for success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement: a clear strategic narrative employees at all levels can understand and buy-in to; a sense that organisation values are reflected by how people treat each other and do business; engaging managers; and employee voice.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, comments: “The public sector leaders featured in this report recognise that the only way that public services can be made more efficient and more responsive to the needs of service users is if employees on the front-line are trusted to innovate and are empowered to act with more autonomy. This requires a fundamental culture change away from traditional command and control styles of leadership to one in which leadership is distributed across organisations. This will not happen overnight and can only be achieved if managers at all levels are equipped with the necessary leadership skills to involve and engage their staff. These same skills are needed to underpin the move to a different type of employment deal in the public services, which provides employees with more flexibility and improved skills development opportunities to compensate for the erosion of traditional public sector benefits such as job security and a final salary pension.”

Martin Rayson, President of the PPMA and HR director at London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, comments: “With the recent launch of the “Engage for Success” report, the PPMA is delighted to have partnered with the CIPD on this important research into the engagement challenge in the public sector. Sustaining engagement in the current climate is difficult, but is fundamental to the ability of the sector to deliver change. The research provides key lessons that all of us involved in public sector HR need to reflect on.”