Leadership in the public sector is facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence at a time when public services are facing huge challenges. In a speech to mark the 45th anniversary of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Local Government Studies, Professor Sir Michael Lyons will say that eroding confidence in public sector leadership has the potential to damage the UK’s economic recovery.

The speech will argue that there is a hostile and damaging climate, which creates a misleading picture of a public sector which simply cannot be trusted.

Professor Lyons comments:”The truth is that a modern high-performance market economy needs a confident, effective, professional public sector as much as it needs a confident, effective, professional private sector.

If those who would be our national leaders have so little faith in the public sector generally, why should the ordinary citizen put their trust there either? 

It’s very noticeable that Germany, the country doing best at surviving the current Eurozone crisis, has a system where public and private work together in a much more fruitful way than they currently do here, even in the sphere of banking.”

The speech will argue that at a time of global financial uncertainty confident public sector leadership is needed to play a hugely important role in three areas: shaping public behaviour; economic recovery; and reshaping the public sector.

 1. The process of winning public support for changes, and shaping expectations for the future, will need skilled and confident leadership. The reduced tax income together with rising benefit payments means that public services and welfare payments will be under intense pressure for some time to come. The process of winning public support for - or even acceptance of - the changes, and of shaping expectations for the future, will need skilled and confident leadership. It will test the reservoirs of residual trust that bind us as a nation.

  1. The special role the public sector can play in reshaping the economy is sustaining and improving the quality of life. Highly skilled labour depends not only on high standards of education, but also the quality of life that can be offered to attract and retain the individuals concerned.
  1. Public leadership will be crucial in responding to the difficult economic times in conducting reform of public services and providing better public value.

Professor Lyons continues: “When the dominant narrative for 30 years has been “private sector good/public sector bad”, why should we be surprised to find a tendency in some parts of the leadership of the public sector to ape the behaviour of their counterparts in the private sector and to fail to promote the strengths and capabilities of their own.

This is extremely damaging – not just to the public sector, but crucially, in our current challenging circumstances, for the ability of the UK economy to pull itself out of its current problems and rediscover the path to growth.”

 Catherine Staite, Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies adds: “The Localism Act provides some opportunities for local government to do things differently at a local level. Local government has developed skills in joining up at a local level those policies which central government has failed to join up at a national level. It has also demonstrated again and again just how efficient and effective it can be.

This is the right time to reflect on the importance of leadership in the public sector and in local government in particular, which makes this lecture particularly timely."

Professor Sir Michael Lyons was knighted for his service to Local Government in 2000 after spending 17 years as Chief executive of 3 major local authorities, including Birmingham, the country’s largest council. He went on to lead the Lyons Enquiry into the future role, and funding of local government, which reported in 2007. He is a former head of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Local Government Studies and recently completed a four year term as Chairman of the BBC.


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The Institute of Local Government Studies

The Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) is the leading UK centre for the study of local public service management, policy and governance. With over 40 years of experience working within local government and the public sector, the Institute of Local Government Studies creates the latest thinking for public servants.

Our staff come from various disciplinary backgrounds and are dedicated to increasing the democratic governance of local communities, working with politicians, managers, communities and partner organisations to enhance practice through academic insight.