Report launch: ‘Public leadership: navigating uncharted waters’ 

ACE, PCF, and Windsor Leadership

22 November 2023
Event summary   

In partnership with Windsor Leadership, ACE and PCF hosted a launch event for our new insight report: ‘Public leadership: navigating uncharted waters.’ This report included contributions from over 60 public service leaders, considering the key question: “How might we release the true potential of public body leaders?”  

At the launch event, members gathered for a lively discussion about the increasingly high expectations placed on public leadership, the common barriers holding leaders back, and possible enablers of future success.  

Helen Pitcher OBE, PCF Chair, opened the session by sharing her personal experience as Chair of an arms-length body as well as her takeaways from conversations with public body leaders over the course of this research. Helen noted the common challenge of catering to many, often changing, stakeholders. Crucially, she underscored the need to harness available resources and knowledge to deliver core services, regardless of who the stakeholders may be. Helen shared how leaders demonstrated a strong passion to serve the public; simultaneously, she highlighted the importance of looking after one’s own health and wellbeing as a leader.  

Identifying common barriers and enablers to leadership success 

Research team member Simon Whitbread, Windsor Leadership, explained that the process of conducting this research was one of ‘appreciative inquiry’ – understanding from leaders what is working well, and what can work better. From this approach, the researchers were able to identify key challenges across public bodies, organisational enablers to effectively managing these challenges, and potential attributes for leadership success. Simon noted key challenges of collaborating across bodies and with stakeholders, highlighting the need for senior leaders to invest in self-development, to use their collective voice as a group, and to work towards having honest conversations with sponsoring departments. A downloadable version of the report and a summary of its key findings can be found here. 

Considering how public leadership has changed 

The event then turned to a panel discussion moderated by Jonathan Story, Chief Executive, Windsor Leadership, with guest panellists Helen Pitcher OBE, PCF Chair; Louisa Dale, Institute of Regulation Director and research team member as former ACE-PCF Secretary; and Sam Hartley, Omagh Bombing Inquiry Secretary. Panellists engaged in a rich discussion sharing their varied experiences with the changing nature of public leadership, considering thoughtful questions from audience members during the Q&A. Key points for consideration are summarised as follows:  

    • It can be extremely time-consuming to navigate increasing complexity and high levels of bureaucracy. There is a need to use collective expertise to align with the sponsoring department and deliver on the organisation’s mission.  
    • On matters of principle, it is especially important to stay true to oneself and the organisation’s core values.  
    • There is value in acknowledging that leaders may not be experts on certain topics. As such, it is important to ensure that experts are in the room as much as possible.  
    • To encourage a culture of leadership development, it is helpful for senior members to lead by example and model expectations for staff.  
    • Chairs and Chief Executives must become crystal clear on the differences between their roles, aligning on their respective responsibilities and what they are aiming to achieve as a whole. 
    • Building an effective working relationship with the sponsoring department requires empathy for the experiences of department officials and the courage to initiate open and honest conversations. 
    • To recruit diverse, competent talent, it is incredibly important to be able to articulate, briefly, the core work of the public body and why it matters.  
    • There is enormous potential for cross-collaboration among public body leadership, highlighting the opportunity for leaders to step up and invite collaboration. 

A path forward for public leadership 

Before concluding the evening with a networking reception, members heard closing remarks from Martin Jones CBE, ACE Chair, and Alison Edbury, ACE and PCF Secretary. They noted that there remain choppy waters ahead, and it will take the right kind of public body leaders to be able to navigate these waters effectively. However, just as ships are repaired as they sail at sea, so too can leaders build the necessary skills, teams, and support systems as they move along their leadership journeys. ACE and PCF are responding to this research by honing our membership programme to ensure that we are best supporting leaders on this path forward. With your engagement and input, we will continue to develop a clear understanding of leaders’ key needs, work across sectoral boundaries, develop infrastructure for collaboration, invest in research for public bodies, and generate greater advocacy for public body leadership. 

As a first step, ACE and PCF will invite members to take forward these research insights at our annual member conference: ‘A way forward for public body leadership: realising talent and potential,’ to be held on 20 February 2024.

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