Scottish public sector - new leadership needed for new times says ESRC report

Thursday 4 June 2009

A fresh approach to public sector leadership is vital if the Scottish Government's vision of a more successful country is to realised - especially given challenges such as the current financial situation and a general loss of trust in leaders - according to a new report from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

'Leadership in the Public Sector in Scotland' - which features contributions from Keith Grint, Prof of Public Leadership and Management at Warwick University, and Graeme Martin, Prof and Director of the Centre for Reputation Management through People at the University of Glasgow's Business School - suggests that current global concerns around leadership are especially sensitive in Scotland following the major financial services companies fall from grace.

The report identifies a trend of 'celebrity leadership'; in which leaders are credited with having all the answers and are rewarded as a result. This has lead to the uproar around their role which has been seen in institutions such as RBS and the Dunfermline Building Society. These problems are clear to see in the private sector but concerns are also apparent in the Scottish public sector.

In response, says the report, Scotland's public sector leaders must throw their weight behind collaborative efforts in response to social issues. Today, public sector leadership in Scotland is pursued in an environment of great complexity, through partnership approaches. This way of working gives increased importance to leadership skills and, according to Keith Grint, requires us to reconsider the role of the leader.

He explained: "Problems facing Scottish public services - for example, obesity, violence and drug abuse - are complex, and require different government organisations to work together in new ways. Individual leaders don't have all the answers and we shouldn't expect them to, but they can ask the right questions and inspire new thinking - and leadership education must help them to do this."

Recent years have seen a huge expansion in the provision of leadership development for those working in the Scottish public sector. However, this expanding industry has not found favour with all, with suggestions that leadership teaching is not critical and its impact is often poorly evaluated.

Graeme Martin explained: "In Scotland, leadership has been seen as key to making the public sector more effective. Although the way it has been taught until now has its virtues, there has been duplication of effort, a lack of sharing of ideas of what has worked, and little evidence that our investment in leadership development has been a good one. We must now think again - public servants, university business schools and consultants must work together to help leaders learn from each other as they seek to improve services for Scotland's citizens".

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Leadership in the Public Sector in Scotland'  - which features contributions from Keith Grint, Prof of Public Leadership and Management at Warwick University, and Graeme Martin, Prof and Director of the Centre for Reputation Management through People at the University of Glasgow's Business School. 'Leadership in the Public Sector in Scotland' was funded and produced by the Economic and Social Research Council in partnership with the Scottish Government. If you would like to receive a free copy of the publication please email knowledgetransfer@esrc.ac.uk
  2. The ESRC Public Policy Seminar Series aims to bring the best social science concepts and evidence into the policy arena and stimulate a discussion of how in the light of these insights, policy can be developed. The goal is to encourage evidence-based policy through an exchange between researchers and policy-makers. For forthcoming public policy seminars, please email knowledgetransfer@esrc.ac.uk
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.