IN MY OPINION - Chartered Management Institute companion Sir Michael Bichard, rector and CEO of the London Institute, believes vision is vital for public-sector leaders.

by Sir Michael Bichard
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Chartered Management Institute companion Sir Michael Bichard, rector and CEO of the London Institute, believes vision is vital for public-sector leaders.

Clarity of vision, creativity, the ability to inspire, motivate and challenge, and a burning passion for excellence - these are qualities that seldom distil in a single leader, and therefore too many followers are often left disappointed.

When you ask those working within public services what qualities they look for in their leaders, clarity of vision is always near the top of their agenda. Indeed, this was a key finding from a major research project by the Chartered Management Institute, which collected the views of 2,000 public-sector managers at all levels.

A resounding two-thirds cited this as the most desirable attribute for public-sector leaders. Yet only a third of managers reported that their most senior management team display clarity of vision.

So what do we all mean when we're talking about vision? At one level, it is based on some insight into what society and the public at large will demand in the future. But few leaders would claim to be futurologists, although too few spend enough time scanning their particular environment.

At another level, vision is what connects your service focus and delivery to the needs of the community. It enables your organisation to imagine and then visualise its contribution to, and its place within, local and even global communities. When you talk to public-sector workers, they are highly motivated to make a difference but are often desperate to see how their tangible actions at a local level fit into the bigger picture.

Initially, 'vision' may be a blurred concept. Envisioning a clear-cut future for any government department or service agency, for example, may sometimes seem an impossible task. The political realities of the public-sector environment, the prioritisation of competing demands within limited resources and the challenge of continuous progress in technology and science mean that any interpretation of vision will always be an evolving concept.

But I agree with the management thinker Peter Senge that a shared vision is one of the five core organisational disciplines. Defined simply as the answer to the question 'What do we want to create?', it can provide a sense of commonality and a focus and a framework for learning and development.

It is also vital if we are to manage the tensions that are heightened in the public sector, due to the particular political dimension. And if we are to provide the best possible service to the public, we need clarity of vision in setting targets and providing a focus for service delivery. In areas without clearly understood and accepted targets, public service employees struggle to understand their objectives and priorities. Properly managed targets and performance measurement have a vital role to play in improving public services. They provide a focus for energy and effort, and enhance accountability. They always carry risks, but it is important to learn the lessons of experience.

Too much centralised control can act as a barrier to change and learning, but it is always difficult to achieve an appropriate balance between establishing principled boundaries within which people can be set free to develop their own creative solutions.

Looking back at my time as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, I had many of the benefits of being an outsider.

Although some civil servants show great enthusiasm for new ideas, such as the focus on outcomes, management and clients, others who are more risk-averse fear a threat to policy, propriety and the value placed on their skills. Traditionally, civil servants were judged on their ability to conform and draft elegant policy statements, not on their skill at accomplishing change.

Yet essentially, vision is about the heart, not the head. You should not worry too much about the fine details of precisely how you craft and express your vision. It should be a simple expression of the what and the why.

Effective strategies for reforming public services require strong political and managerial leadership, high levels of commitment, and skills at all levels. The popular media often convey a dismal picture of the sector.

As those working in the sector know, huge efforts are being devoted to modernisation. But the key to unlock success is leadership, and vision is the key to effective leadership. So it's good to see new leadership colleges being set up, such as the National College for School Leadership, the Defence Leadership Centre, the NHS Leadership College, to name but a few. Although it is too early to assess the effectiveness of these initiatives, they offer hope that we can begin to explore leadership across organisational boundaries, and to transfer our learning between different sectors.

The research project I have been steering for the Chartered Management Institute has reinforced the critical importance of leadership and vision in the public sector. It has exposed some of the particular problems in measuring performance in the sector and the need for tailor-made solutions rather than recycled private-sector ideas. But it raises worrying questions about the quality of leadership in the sector - and the extent to which committed public-sector workers feel that their leaders are failing them.

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