Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Sir Howard Bernstein, a CMI Companion and CEO of Manchester City Council, on the skills and behaviours needed to achieve public service reform.

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

The challenging economic climate has focused the public sector on the need for radical reform to tackle the cost pressures on it. This will require significant public service collaboration to deliver financial self-reliance and devolved powers. Public service reform (PSR) encompasses but goes beyond rethinking service delivery to achieve this. It involves changing how residents receive services and in doing so promotes their independence. It also involves using money differently to create a return on investment so that money can be re-used.

Through PSR we aim to reduce capacity safely in response to reduced demand.

PSR is a key part of the strategy for Manchester and Greater Manchester with the focus on creating the conditions for economic growth - promoting private sector investment, creating jobs, reducing worklessness and dependency.

This type of reform will require different skills and behaviours across all levels of management. Some of the key leadership and management skills necessary for public service reform include the ability to adapt; to lead across organisational boundaries; to exert influence outside traditional hierarchies; to demonstrate political intelligence; and the ability to engage with the community.

Working across agency and organisational boundaries requires people to co-operate in new ways. Agencies need to work collaboratively to increase productivity and reduce dependency on public services, while protecting the vulnerable. We have been testing this out by bringing together neighbourhood police teams and local authority compliance officers within localities to co-ordinate more effectively the delivery of services. New investment models, which track spend and the benefits of the new delivery methods against business as usual, allow partners to see the return on investment.

Excellent commissioning and negotiation skills are needed to ensure we invest in effective, evidence-based interventions, as are strong data analysis skills so that we understand the impact that our commissioned services are having. These tools will be essential for our front-line services such as the local integration teams in Manchester who are leading on the Community Budget Pilots - proposals that need to show ambition and radical thinking when planning better designed, better delivered local services.

While these skills are by no means a complete list, they start to provide a basis for discussion across public services and with other providers. Over the past two years, Manchester City Council has been focusing on increasing the capacity of leaders, managers and staff through our 'm people framework'. This was developed with trade union representatives and focuses on developing flexibility and skills that enable quick, efficient movement of resources to business need. We have mapped out career routes, from apprenticeships to senior management and invested in our workforce. Employees have also been encouraged to think about their own future and make informed choices about their careers through a support for change programme.

This framework has been instrumental in enabling the council to meet the challenges of the local government settlement and align capacity and skills to the priorities within our Community Strategy of promoting economic growth and reducing dependency.

However, the development of the skills required to deliver public service reform cannot be addressed in isolation. Significant long-term culture change is also required across a range of partners to overcome professional, organisational and technical barriers. Traditional change techniques will not deliver the outcomes required.

We are learning from behavioural science models and focusing on methods of 'viral change'. As the phrase suggests, viral change relies on stimulating an infectious desire in individuals to adopt a new way of working. The council has encouraged individuals with credibility and influence at all levels of civic life to develop a shared narrative through the identification and adoption of effective behaviours. We have developed local case studies where there is evidence of behaviours that facilitate improvements in the lives of our clients. As staff have participated in identifying those effective behaviours that have reduced dependency and produced better outcomes for citizens and neighbourhoods, they become more engaged in the process and understand the benefits of doing things differently.

Reflecting on changes in the public sector, and the challenges facing our emerging leaders and managers, I am drawn back to the importance of the shared narrative: the values, principles and priorities connecting people and place which provide the framework that guides decision-making. Managers and leaders, at all levels, have a vital role in delivering community services in a more integrated way. Our shared narrative and evidence-based development framework will help to provide a solid basis that supports this comprehensive and complex change programme for delivering public sector reform.


Sir Howard Bernstein joined Manchester City Council as a junior clerk and has been chief executive since 1998. He is known for his business acumen, forging partnerships with key players - both public and private - and is regularly named as one of the north-west's most influential figures.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime