Unlocking effective public sector leadership in Northern Ireland

Unlocking effective public sector leadership in Northern Ireland

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IN BRIEF
Distinctive challenges
While leaders in Northern Ireland face many of the same challenges as their peers in Great Britain, these are compounded by deeper political uncertainty, the ongoing institutional challenges of the Irish Backstop, and an unclear pathway to the return of traditional government structures.
Common themes
Our CEO and Chair in Government reports rang true in Northern Ireland. Five key insights resonated: Relationships are essential; You need to work inside the system; Attentiveness is an essential leadership quality; The entire leadership team has a role to play; The grass isn’t always greener.
Already in action
While leaders in Northern Ireland can increase their impact by drawing on these reports and insights, Nous clients in Great Britain are already taking the next steps on implementation: Appointees using frameworks; Leadership teams using reports for testing and development; Leaders starting conversations.

At a recent briefing hosted by the Chief Executives’ Forum and NI Public Sector Chairs’ Forum in Belfast, we shared key findings from our ground-breaking reports into effective leadership in arm’s-length bodies, exploring what this means for the public sector in Northern Ireland. Joining Nous colleagues Peter Horne and Nic Dillon were Dr Denis McMahon (Permanent Secretary, The Executive Office), Colin Coffey (Chair, Agri-Food & BioSciences Institute), Kathryn Thomson (Chief Executive, National Museums Northern Ireland) and Helen Pitcher (Chair, Public Chairs’ Forum UK). The event was chaired by Nicole Lappin (Chair, Northern Ireland Housing Executive). We are pleased to share the themes from this discussion.

By Peter Horne and Nic Dillon

All parts of government need effective leadership. It is important when times are good but essential when times are tough. This is true in departments and also in arm’s-length bodies (ALBs), which account for a third of government expenditure.

While there’s a rich literature on the leadership skills required in the civil service, there is less emphasis on what it takes to be an excellent leader in organisations that are at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers. That’s why Nous partnered with the UK’s Association of Chief Executives and then the Public Chairs’ Forum to examine the characteristics and capabilities that make an outstanding ALB CEO and chair.

Our reports, The CEO in Government: Leading ALBs well and The Chair in Government: Profiling the chair of an arm’s-length body, highlight the complexities of the CEO and chair roles, their relationships and the ecosystems in which they operate.

While leaders in Northern Ireland face many of the same challenges as their peers in Great Britain, these are compounded by deeper political uncertainty, the ongoing institutional challenges of the Irish Backstop, and an unclear pathway to the return of traditional government structures.

And this has a real impact on government activities. It stops some decisions from being made and pushes other, traditionally ministerial, decisions to civil servants. It makes service delivery harder. This means that while effective leadership public sector leadership is essential everywhere, it is even more necessary in Northern Ireland.

We found five strategies for success for Northern Irish leaders

The themes of our CEO and Chair in Government reports rang true in Northern Ireland just as they have in Great Britain. Five key insights resonated particularly strongly with local leaders:

  1. Relationships are essential. Public services are complex. No service exists in isolation and effective public sector leaders will need to build and leverage their networks to develop collective solutions to social challenges. The likely reductions in spending on Northern Irish services and the challenges operating without ministers reinforce the need for creative solution-making. These relationships are broad – they include the core CEO-Chair relationship but extend across government and into civil society.
  2. You need to work inside the system. Every system has its own challenges, ways of working and pathways for influence. We might bemoan the difficulties or oddities of the system or sector in which we work but we need to work within it. Perfection will not come any time soon, if ever, and public sector leaders need to maximise their impact and the quality of their services now.
  3. Attentiveness is an essential leadership quality. The breadth of relationships and interests involved in public sector decision-making and the legitimate public scrutiny of government decisions mean attentiveness is a core leadership tenet. This goes beyond listening and seeking out insights; leaders must translate this information accumulation into insight and action.
  4. The entire leadership team has a role to play. The quartet of the CEO, chair, permanent secretary, and minister sit at the core of impactful ALBs, with the CEO-chair relationships at the heart of this. But the commitment and impact of other leaders – the board, executive team, and beyond – determines whether organisations serve the public as well as they ought to. Committed leadership is necessary throughout the organisation.
  5. The grass isn’t always greener. It’s easy to think that other people and other systems work better because they avoid the irritations that you experience every day. For example, the Northern Irish public appointments process leads to challenges for prospective appointees and existing public officials. However, it is not clear that the Westminster processes provide a more effective model.

Many strategies are already working

While leaders in Northern Ireland can increase their impact by drawing on these reports and insights, we are pleased to see Nous clients in Great Britain already taking the next steps on implementation:

  1. Prospective public appointees are using the frameworks in the reports to guide their applications, engaging with Nous colleagues for insights and reflections.
  2. Leadership teams are using the reports as the basis for psychometric testing and professional development, including through direct support from Nous.
  3. Leaders are using the reports to start conversations with sponsorship teams and partners to develop a shared understanding of how they can best collectively contribute to public services.

Get in touch to discuss opportunities to maximise effectiveness in leadership.

Connect with Peter Horne and Nic Dillon on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Steph Huang.

Published on 1 December 2022.

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