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Public Sector Leadership: A Delicate Balancing Act between Operations and Transformation, Vision and Regulation

By Birgitte Hvilsom (Public Sector Leadership Expert & Consultant)
and Tjorven Ludes
(Marketing Coordinator at IDONEA)

Public sector institutions have an unparalleled objective to shape the future of society. They’re actively co-creating the direction in which society moves into the future, unlocking positive social change and development, global competitiveness, modernization, and increasing the quality of life for the citizens. And quite in contrast to its frequent perception in the eyes of the public, the public sector is far less rigid than often assumed.

All of this affords public sector institutions an inherent purpose in their work that is quite unmatched by most private sector organizations. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t substantial obstacles and challenges as well. As much purpose as there is in this work, as much do regulations, bureaucracy, and budgets tend to restrain public sector work by shifting the focus from development and purpose to formalities – which can be a highly limiting factor, dampening the potential of public sector institutions.

This calls for a kind of leadership that can master the delicate balancing act between optimizing operations within the framework of budgets and regulations on the one hand and driving development alongside the society’s demands and new possibilities on the other. The goal is to answer to the citizens’ needs as much in a fast-changing future as today. But this needs leaders with inspiring visions, able to translate the core task into captivating dreams.

From One Major Challenge Seamlessly on to the Next One

Slowly but surely, Covid is on the way to leaving the center stage of the public sector’s primary concern and attention. With the progress in vaccination, the ‘older’ but no less relevant challenges are reemerging into their focus. And they are no less challenging than the fight against Covid.

There is, for example, the permanent race against the time to limit climate change. Accordingly, the sustainability agenda is naturally a factor playing into many considerations in public sector institutions, at least to some degree. Also, a changing age distribution leaves a need to adjust for the public sector. Meanwhile, digitalization and technological developments are fundamentally changing the way society works, its needs, and the interactions between institutions and citizens. They require constant adaptation from the public sector to do justice to the changing societal demands and needs. At the same time, they present near-boundless new possibilities for mobility and infrastructure, communication, digital services and interactions, as well as personalization and many more areas.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered substantial developments in the public sector in an extremely short time, one of the biggest leaps of development in recent history. It has revealed how dynamic and empowered its institutions can be already now, with a high degree of readiness and a striking capacity to operate efficiently, develop, and adapt to needs and changing circumstances in a short period. This may mark a golden opportunity for the public sector to shed its slow and rigid image.

But it will require the same determination and sense of urgency to take on these old and new challenges successfully – even though they may not appear as that immediate, visible, or severe in their effects as Covid does. It is crucial that the public sector continues to build on the momentum it has developed during Covid, using it to continue its own development to unlock more positive social change and progress. After the core task was absolutely clear during Covid (namely to minimize/stop the infections), the same clarity has to be translated into the other tasks that are once again remerging into the limelight.

The competencies for change and development are evidently on hand – but they also need to be activated and utilized, just as they were in the reaction and fast action in response to Covid.

The Core Task for Public Sector Leaders: Balancing Operations and Development around Citizens’ Needs

The core mission of the public sector is responding to and satisfying the citizens’ needs and shaping the quality of life of the collective. However, when we were sitting down together to write the article, Birgitte Hvilsom emphasized one key challenge with achieving this task, that she has observed in her years of consulting in the public sector (including 5 years as head-consultant for Aalborg municipality).

That challenge is finding the perfect balance between optimizing the performance of current operations while developing the competencies and capabilities needed to satisfy the society’s needs in the future. Only when this is achieved, can public institutions ensure that they fulfill their core mission in the best way possible – both today and in the future. And it requires leaders to establish a strong sense of meaning and purpose to drive both operations and development.

In the Dreams & Details methodology, we call that optimizing the current while preparing for the new season.

Likely, the approach and mindset towards how to help citizens in the best possible way will have to change with the new challenges and opportunities in the future. Leaders need to be aware of the changing circumstances, challenge assumptions and rethink if the way their institutions help citizens now will also be the optimal way in the future.

It is absolutely critical not just to focus on one half of the equation. Leaders who spend their time and efforts only thinking about the future – neglecting what the reality is right now – run the danger of not creating the necessary supporting structures to impact the community to the best of the abilities in the here and now. Optimizing the current operations (the current season) is an inevitable prerequisite for having the most impact in the future (the new season). 

However, if the focus is only on optimizing the present performance and operations, you run the risk of getting stuck in the present and missing the leap into the future. As we touched upon previously, there is a wide array of factors (i.e., a changing social structure, digitalization, tech developments, sustainability requirements, etc.) that will likely have a massive impact on the future needs and demands of citizens. If public sector leaders fail to consider how these developments impact the future needs as well as the opportunities arising with them, they’ll likely fail to have as much of a relevant, timely, and optimally matched impact as their institutions do today.

Leaders, as well as employees, have to understand the importance of both: Performance and development. The leaders who manage to communicate a meaningful dream, as the foundation and purpose for both development and operations, will successfully drive the public sector forward.

Finding this optimal balance between old and new, optimization and reinvention, is what we call a dynamic change of seasons. And it requires a timely development and training of the capabilities that are needed in the future to utilize the capabilities once they have become more relevant and accessible – instead of lagging behind and responding late to developments rather than proactively using them.

Just to give an example: Addressing and promoting digitization at an early stage does not only create new possibilities for services or interactions with citizens, but it also leads to a more natural way of dealing with it in society, which ultimately contributes to more international competitiveness in this area (also in the private sector).

Leaders need to devise a dream around the core task they seek to fulfill for the citizens that integrates the new demands, developments, and possibilities. At the same time, they have to ensure that their visions of how to impact citizens’ lives in the best way possible stay in line with the budget, regulations, and the overall decisions by the government.

Budgets Don't Inspire - Dreams Do

Here is where the balancing act becomes possibly most delicate. It is neither budgets nor regulations or political decisions that inspire people – it is the sense of purpose, of helping to solve an issue or task that has an impact larger than oneself, which inspires, motivates, and engages people most. And although the public sector is, as mentioned before, less rigid than often assumed, the budget and regulations are still of utmost importance to be compliant with. Simultaneously, the public sector resembles non-profit organizations to a large degree,  in the sense that it directly affects specific social groups (or a whole society) with the aim of raising their quality of life. This makes the entire sector inherently quite purpose-driven by nature. 

All in all, civil servants have an obligation towards the public to utilize their resources in the best way possible to make the optimal decisions with the highest possible impact for the affected social group. How can leaders succeed with this juggling act?

We asked several public sector leaders in Denmark about their perspectives and experiences. And from the responses, a common thread became clear about what is fundamentally most powerful to motivate and engage, perform and develop: The ability to formulate a meaningful dream derived from the mission.

“My true task,” summed one leader up, “is to translate our core task into an inspiring and truly motivating purpose.” This also involves considering how the budget and regulations frame the purpose you formulate without letting them dictate the dream.

One of the leaders we talked to, whose department carries responsibility for senior citizens, even took it a step further. When we asked him about balancing the restricting effect of budget and regulations with allowing your employees to act more freely and focused on their impact, he went on record saying:

Budgets are a natural part of our job, but we really try to spend as little time on them as possible. We talk about the budget if you should get to the situation that you surpass it. What I value much more and what I evaluate you on is the impact you have on the senior citizens.

In every conversation that we had, we recognized that the leaders who experienced the most success and development through their leadership style were those that allowed as much freedom as possible to empower their employees. And the ability to translate the core task of the institution into an inspiring, meaningful dream led to great motivation, engagement, and development.

It may not be exceedingly difficult to derive such a dream from the purpose that is already inherent to public sector institutions. Yet, budgets, regulations, excessive bureaucracy, and the alike have a high risk concealing the purpose to such a large extent that it is perceived less by employees – leading to less motivation, engagement, and development.

For leaders, it then becomes crucial to break with this pattern and make sure that the citizens’ needs become the number one priority and build a dream around it. If leaders succeed with that, they will unleash the full potential of public sector institutions and the individual departments.

As we could witness firsthand during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is, in fact, plenty of empowerment and energy in the public sector right now, waiting to be unleashed and mobilized. And while the core mission and task were clear during the crisis, now it is up to the leaders to make sure to formulate a dream as inspiring and meaningful to solve the upcoming challenges.

The goal has to remain to help citizens in the best way possible, both today and in the future. However, this may need a change in the mindset of HOW to help best. This will require leaders to use their freedom for not taking assumptions for granted and being open to rethinking how to help best, considering their mission and the changing social environment.

Realizing Dreams for the Society

The budget, regulations and the alike should be seen and used as the framework for action. No more, no less. This framework marks the specific limits, which should not be overstepped by employees. But budgets, regulations, and bureaucracy should not be the all-determining factors in the work of civil servants.

As previously said, the core task is still helping citizens in the best way possible to increase their quality of life while utilizing the resources optimally. This should be the starting point for the mindset that public leaders pass on and instill in their entire department. What specifically is included in the mindset depends on the respective context of the department and on what is required to achieve the dream today and in the future.

But already if every single employee has the mindset to make the citizens’ needs the number one priority (with the aim of raising their quality of life and welfare), it will guide their decision making in everyday situations and foster that they come to the optimal decision inside the framework and with the resources at their disposal. One public sector leader we talked to got to the heart of this with his statement:

Of course we have to stick to the budget. But how exactly we use the budget, that’s where we actually have a lot of freedom to work. And it’s about using my resources the right way to make the optimal decision for the affected people.

But the core task for each department or institution has to be translated into a meaningful and inspiring dream. The dream should be understandable for every member of the leader’s team, and everyone has to know his or her own role in the journey to reaching it. It needs to delineate a clear direction of where the department or team is going in the future, but not prescribe a specific plan of how to get there. In this way, it leaves the freedom for individual employees to make optimal decisions to the best of their expertise. And it has to be ambitious and inspiring to ensure that it motivates and engages everyone to deliver their maximum performance.

Meanwhile, leaders have to give extensive thought to how their departmental area and way to help citizens will change in the future due to the previously named factors. According to the specific developments and changes within their branch, leaders have to identify which new competencies and capabilities their team has to develop in order to satisfy the future needs and demands of citizens as well as today’s.

Moreover, they need to ensure that they have employees occupying the required roles and foster collaboration to achieve maximum performance. And they have to be aware of which skills will be needed to continue serving citizens to the best of their abilities in the future. Does your department, for example, need a digital specialist? Or an environmental expert? Those are considerations leaders should have on their minds to allow for the optimal path to achieving the dream.

In this way, leaders will be most successful at walking the tightrope between optimizing current operations and performance on the one hand, and future-oriented development on the other hand – which is the key to succeeding with the core mission, today and in the future.

In the end, it comes down to this: The better public sector institutions can solve their core task, thereby increasing the citizens quality of life and the country’s international competitiveness – while having the foresight to understand which developments and outside factors will heavily impact the society and economy and adjusting accordingly – the better the society and country will be off as a whole.

It becomes a question of empowering your employees and thereby empowering the public sector and your institution. And we believe that the Dreams & Details approach lends help to public sector leaders to do precisely that.