Have public sector leadership programmes failed so badly?

From the late 1980’s a new sub industry emerged in the UK public sector, mass sector wide leadership development programmes. The Health sector was well and truly into this game by this time with huge programmes developing future leaders and the local government sector followed swiftly behind. The very best of these programmes were based upon the assumption that investment was needed to ensure a steady supply of fit for purpose leaders and good, imaginative national programmes attracted an interesting cadre of supporters and participants, some who signed up were clearly ambitious and needed successful participation in these programmes on their CV’s to be even considered for the next job up the organisational scale, others were, on reflection pushed on these programmes to ‘cure’ them of old habits or wake them up to rapidly changing circumstances.

Did they work? Well the evidence is mixed but some who participated on these programmes are now in the top jobs and others have sunk without trace. But was the programme itself a key determinant of success? Perhaps they were destined to have sharp inclines on their career trajectories anyway and the programme was at best incidental in helping them get there. But in a world where every last penny is squeezed out of budgets to fund the front line services and the best development on offer now which incidentally is free (just browsing the net?) as the remaining option means we might be missing a trick? The research evidence on how people get into top jobs is a bit hazy – the best we can glean from it is twofold – getting early experience of project based corporate working and that past performance (whilst not always the most reliable predictor) remains as the best predictor of future performance. There have also been a few interesting hiccoughs upon the way – the National College for School Leadership was a brave if not brazen attempt to demonstrate that professional classroom competence was just not enough to lead a complex entity such as a school – even if they seem to have succumbed to the magnetic pull back into professionalism as opposed to true leadership – and the National Graduate Programme for Local Government has had a bit of a stop/start journey to where it is today.

But now, as we are hollowing out many of our public sector organisations – senior strategic staff are doing the administrative work because all the expensive administrators and middle managers have been made redundant we need to find a way of bringing these hungry, ambitious and talented people out of their shells and help them find ways of transforming our public bodies. Doing it by ‘browsing the net’ will not work. Leadership development is about carefully planned and facilitated constructive socialisation – it is not about reading and knowing more about leadership theory (as interesting as that is anyway) but unless we can find the development opportunities, at the right cost, in the right place and at the right time we are running the risk of facing all the same problems we were dealing with a quarter of a century ago.

The Centre for Leadership at the University of Birmingham (CLUB)  is starting to open up this debate once again – can we find a way to rethink leadership development and inspire, not ignore those who are on the steep career trajectories? We think there is a way – keep watching this space. Leadership development cannot be done without some investment in time and energy as well as a modest financial contribution. We need to bring those people who are genuinely striving to become better leaders together, they need to spark off each other, test out their ideas and clarify how they impact upon those they are there to lead. As someone once said “Leadership – it’s a contact sport and not a virtual reality”


Ian Briggs - Inlogov

Ian Briggs (Senior Fellow)
Research interests lie in The development of effective leaders, leadership assessment and the identification of potential; Performance coaching, organisational development and large scale leadership development interventions; Organisational change and the establishment of shared service provision.

The end of Winterval? Don’t bet on it.

The last Valentines have been sent, the last Chinese New Year firecrackers ignited, the last pantomime cast dispersed – even from Bradford’s glorious Alhambra, where Robin Hood was outlawing away well into February.  In short, Winterval is indubitably over, and here in Birmingham, just possibly, over for ever. Not, please note, over for good – not as far as I’m concerned, anyway. PR disaster though it became, I liked Winterval.

I liked it back in 1997, when it was launched by the then Labour City Council, for its brief two-year lifespan.  It seemed an imaginative, inclusive and surely innocuous idea.  And, 13 years later, it still does – notwithstanding that, towards the end of every one of those years, rent-a-quote Tory politicians, publicity-seeking church leaders, and our agenda-driven, fact-careless media have used Winterval myths to mock the alleged PCGM (Political Correctness Gone Mad) of Birmingham Council in particular and local government in general. For that’s what Winterval became: not just an innocent idea pointlessly destroyed, but a long-running urban myth.

Like most effective myths, Winterval was not totally invented. Rather, it started as an unremarkable, and largely unremarked, initiative, which subsequently gained folkloric status by continual exaggerated and distorted retelling. There never was any proposed ban by ‘barmy Brussels bureaucrats’ of straight, or any other shape of, bananas; but yes, there was a European Commission regulation categorising bananas partly by their curvature.

Similarly, Birmingham City Council never proposed renaming, demeaning, let alone abolishing or banning Christmas (as if it could). But yes, it did for two years use ‘Winterval’ – a conjunction of ‘Winter’ and ‘festival’ – as an umbrella marketing strategy to promote, collectively as well as individually, the numerous religious, secular and commercial events taking place over the three-month period from, in 1998/99, Halowe’en, Guy Fawkes Night and Diwali,  through the switching-on of the Christmas lights, the Frankfurt Christmas market, Advent, nativity plays and carol concerts, Hannukah, Ramadan and Eid, Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Eve, to the January sales and the Chinese/Lunar New Year, which in 1999 fell on 16th February.

It’s how, and how extensively, this actuality was distorted into the destructive and apparently unstoppable Winterval myth – “Birmingham rebrands Christmas” – that provides one reason for revisiting it here: not because it’s exceptional, but precisely because it isn’t.  Local government suffers at least as much from this alarmist myth regurgitation as the EU and the Health and Safety Executive. Both these bodies have tried everything to quash unfounded, and potentially scary, myths – from systematically documenting their falsity to producing website lists of the most bizarre – but still they’re regularly trotted out by lazy journalists or motivated malevolents.

Local government has faced the very same problems over the years – from Baa Baa Green Sheep and manhole-renaming allegations in the Loony Left 1980s to David Cameron’s imagined conker bans in school playgrounds.  The one unusual feature of Winterval is that, thanks largely to the diligence of media blogger and tweeter, Kevin Arscott, we have a comprehensive chapter-and-verse account of who the myth-perpetrators were, from which much of the following summary is taken.

 Before examining the myth, though, here are a few Winterval facts:

  1. Birmingham City Council (BCC) did not coin the term, but it was the first body to use it on a large scale. It was not devised to avoid offending, or following pressure from, Muslims or any other faith or non-faith groups, but, as noted above, as a marketing strategy, by the Council’s Head of Events, Mike Chubb.
  2. The first Winterval was over Christmas 1997/98. It was widely welcomed, enjoyed, judged successful, and not one critical media story was recorded.
  3. The first media attack on what proved the final Winterval – “a way of not talking about Christmas” and thereby offending “people of other faiths” – came in November 1998 from the then Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, in his diocesan Christmas message. The Bishop was quoted in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury as accusing BCC of censoring Christianity and “replacing Christmas”, which quickly went the 1998 equivalent of viral, becoming “cancelling” in The Sun and “renaming” elsewhere across a slaveringly receptive national media, ever on the look-out for cases of town hall PCGM. By the turn of the year, despite the Council’s repeated rebuttals, it had received the Irish Times’ ‘Clown of the Year award’ as “the city council that abolished Christmas”.  
  4. The extent of the “replacement” or whatever can be judged from the Council’s official poster. A blatant appeal to commercialism and materialism – certainly, and no doubt irksome to the Bishop. But surely even he might have conceded that sticking CHRISTMAS in a three-word headline and your alleged replacement in the bottom right-hand corner is an odd way of ‘not talking about’ something and announcing its cancellation.

It was, of course, not Christmas that was cancelled after 1998, but Winterval – although you’d never have guessed it. For the further into history Winterval itself receded, the greater the frequency with which the myth was recycled and embellished.  The dozen or so newspaper references a year from 1998 to 2004 have increased since 2005 to over 30. In the last two seasons alone, we have had, in addition to numerous ‘professional’ journalists, Jonathan Aitken, the Archbishop of York, Pope Benedict (“Pope’s Battle to save Christmas” from the depravities of Birmingham councillors – Daily Mail, 18 September, 2010), Lord (George) Carey, the Christian Institute, Frederick Forsyth, Eric Pickles and Ann Widdecombe: scrupulous fact-checkers all.

We have also had some additional twists, to keep the ball rolling. In 2004 The Sun started a ‘Don’t Sack Santa’ campaign, to restore Santa Claus to the Bullring shopping centre from which he’d never been excluded. Then the Royal Mail was dragged in, accused of ‘banning religion’ by omitting depictions of the Bible story from its Christmas stamps – by journalists evidently unaware of its policy of annually alternating between religious and non-religious themes.  

So who or what has been chiefly responsible for creating and so effectively sustaining the Winterval myth?  A combination of a carelessly ignorant bishop, sloppy journalism, and undue editorial deference to the pronouncements of church leaders, or is there something more sinister?  Kevin Arscott, documenter of these events, thinks there is. He traces how Bishop Santer’s initial, groundless suggestion that Winterval was introduced to avoid offending non-Christians has, particularly in recent years, become part of an ongoing campaign by sections of the media against political correctness, diversity, multi-culturalism, and the perceived Islamification of Britain.  The Winterval myth has been woven into an invented narrative that posits that Christianity and Christmas is under attack due to the intolerance of other faiths and ethnicities (in reality, Muslims), to create an inverse intolerance of other faiths and ethnicities.” (The Winterval Myth, p.4).     

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph and what must seem, in the light of those that followed, the rather odd suggestion that Winterval is over. Towards the end of last year, however, just as we were approaching the normal opening of the Winterval myth season, three things happened: one in itself unnoteworthy, but the other two really rather extraordinary.

First, the Daily Mail’s polemical columnist, Melanie Phillips, in a characteristic rant on PCGM, made one of her periodic references to how “Christmas has been renamed in various places ‘Winterval’”.  It was getting on for the 50th Mail article to have peddled this fiction, the single difference this time being Extraordinary Event No.1. The Mail, no doubt with the Leveson Inquiry in mind, was about to introduce a long overdue ‘Clarifications and Corrections’ policy.  Which eventually – after persistent pressure from blogs like Tabloid Watch and Minority Thought, reference to the Press Complaints Commission, much resistance from the paper, and blustering libel threats from Phillips – led to Extraordinary Event No.2.  It was 13 years late, will do nothing to undamage Birmingham’s reputation, and it must be doubted if the Mail was truly as “happy” as it claimed. But it did publish an actual apology, appended to a revision of Phillips’ column, “to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas”.

So that’s it. The Winterval myth is dead. No more Winterval fiction by the Mail, Phillips and their like. And if you believe that, well, you’ll believe anything!

Chris Game

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Performance related pay and local government

Well the cat is well and truly out of the bag now. Going beyond the issue of banker bonus the government is now taking a ‘serious look’ at rewards systems in the public sector. (BBC news 13 February 2012.) We need to be alert to the fact that the research evidence for linking performance to pay is at best a little sketchy and at worst downright misleading. Where performance is exceptional then little doubt remains that if it is not rewarded properly then you run the very real risk of losing your most talented people – an argument that is paramount in the banking industry. But there are other reasons – I myself was engaged in some work in recent years that involved talking to senior high earning staff in the financial services industry and it did not take long to uncover the uncomfortable truth that in for some high bonus rewards are a product of the fear of losing some of your very sensitive commercial knowledge to a competitor. This seems never to be spoken about by those giving voice to the defence of the bonus culture. However, this is an argument that carries little weight in the public sector, true some staff may be party to sensitive information but it was not too long ago that we had a culture that if we invested in staff through a mixture of necessity and a desire to offer ‘implicit’ reward through access to training and development – that if someone who had benefited from this left and moved employment to another council then local government as a whole benefitted. The recipient individual and council would benefit but it left the door open to recruit someone who may have benefitted from another sponsors investment.

There may be little appetite for extending performance related pay in local government but we also do too little to think about the mechanisms we have to hand to reward through saying “thank you”, through offering interesting and challenging work through job design and through actually engaging people beyond the core of the job function we undertake. Sadly, in a climate of extracting the last ounce from individuals and the personal tragedy that downsizing is for thousands we have forgotten that many in local government do work for us because they want to – the work is of value and if we underpay we pay the price in de-motivation and loss of discretionary effort. So please keep the banker bonus question out of local government – it does not apply and if you are being rewarded through PRP then good luck to you – but make certain you earn it through the implicit rewards you can offer those less fortunate than yourself.

Ian Briggs - Inlogov

Ian Briggs (Senior Fellow)
Research interests lie in The development of effective leaders, leadership assessment and the identification of potential; Performance coaching, organisational development and large scale leadership development interventions; Organisational change and the establishment of shared service provision.

Localism and Public Health: what will be the impact of regulating the employment of Directors of Public Health

The plan to impose regulations on local authorities about the employment of Directors of Public Health (DPHs) is wrong on so many levels.

It gives the message that local authorities cannot be trusted to employ independent professionals. There are many roles in local government which carry personal responsibility and authority. Section 151 officers, planning officers and monitoring officers have a long history of acting with professional independence. Their decisions may from time to time thwart councillors or other officers but they don’t get sacked for it. It also demonstrates how little DH understands Localism. The imposition of more regulations isn’t just an irritant for local government it sends out a corrosive and damaging message that central government doesn’t trust it to do a simple job well. That will hardly build the confidence of DPHs at a time of transition.

The plan has clearly been developed in response to anxiety on the part of DPHs about moving to another universe – local government. The right response to that understandable anxiety is to allay fears and build bridges, not for DPHs to look back to the shelter of the NHS. The NHS hasn’t always been very nice to Public Health. DPHs may find that local government is rather nicer. Times are hard in local government but there is some very good work going on to meet the challenges. Many DPHs are already joint appointments and many others have already made very successful transitions into local government and are beginning to enjoy themselves in their new environment. Most local authorities are still very good places to work and most chief executives are very good people to work for. Good working relationships, built on mutual trust and respect, will ensure the successful transition of public health to local government. In the unlikely event that things do go wrong for a DPH, because of a personality clash or performance issues, an obligation on the part of the local authority to have regard to regulations will be no help at all.

Nicola Close’s comment about the need for DPHs to be free to speak out on behalf of communities reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the way local government works. Councillors speak out on behalf of their communities. That is what they have been elected to do. It is their job and they do it with the professional advice and support of their officers. DPHs will be supporting local politicians to argue more effectively for their communities on health and wellbeing issues and providing them with the data and analysis needed to make difficult choices. This will be a lot more powerful than being a disregarded lone voice.

The negative tone of the discourse about the transfer of DPHs demonstrates the extent to which sight has been lost of the main goal of the changes. DPHs know more than anyone about the importance of the wider determinants of health – housing, employment, environment – than anyone. Those lie within the remit of local authorities and DPHs will be able to harness resources, create synergies and maximise impact in the battle for better outcomes. They know that we need a radical realignment of services towards prevention, early intervention and re-ablement and that change will only happen if there is an integrated approach, across public health, social care and the wider NHS. That work is being led locally by the Health and Wellbeing Boards, of which DPHs will be key members. In local government DPHs can have the sort of influence that they only dreamed of when they were running a peripheral service in the NHS.

Catherine StaiteCatherine Staite (Director of INLOGOV)
Catherine provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

Steep fall in uni application rates? No, there bloody isn’t!

I should have gone to Ladbrokes and put money on it. I used to do undergraduate admissions, so I know these things – and I’d have cheerfully bet 50 quid that,come the end of January, there’d be fistfuls of stories headlining how university applications had plummeted this year, “in the face of the hike infees”. And of course there were. They were dated 30th January, but for all the detailed notice they took of the actual figures released the previous day by UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), they might have been written three months ago, along with the follow-up swipe at the Coalition in general and Nick Clegg in particular.

The message they convey is wilfully misleading. Even so, I was busy doing something else and was going to let it pass – until Mariella Frostrup pushed me over the edge. She presents Radio 4’s ‘Open Book’ programme and, ever topical, was discussing a couple of recently published campus novels – both Oxbridge, almost needless to say. At one point she asked her guests what they thought the implications were of “the UCAS report that applications are down by 15 per cent this year” (2nd Feb).  Despite supposedly knowing something about students and one being a York University professor, neither guest even questioned the figure, but embarked instead on increasingly frenzied speculations about two-tier systems and universities becoming accessible only to the privileged few.

Heaven only knows where the 15% came from,but the programme covers “the best of new fiction and non-fiction”, so presumably it hopped across from the fiction bit. The figures most of the media used – certainly for their headlines –were the 7.4% fall in total applications compared to the same time last year,or, if they wanted to rub it in a bit, the 8.7% drop in UK applicants.  Even allowing for the likelihood that lastyear’s baseline was somewhat boosted by students applying at the earliest opportunity in order to avoid the fees increase, these figures do seem concerning – or at least they do for the three minutes it takes to read on tothe other stats UCAS released and the interpretation they provided. But –surprise! surprise! – few did.

What most missed, therefore, is the childishly simple point that there’s a crucial difference between application numbers and application rates. The clue is in the word ‘rates’, suggesting a relationship between two variables – in this case the actual number of applications and the potential number.  Divide the number of applications from an age group by the size of that group in the population, and you get the proportion of the group who’ve applied: not only a direct measure of demand, but a way of measuring fluctuations in demand without any effect ofyear-to-year changes in the group size.

Ah yes, those year-to-year changes. You might think that anyone who’s lived forany time in the UK would be at least vaguely aware of the post-war baby boom and the generational bulges it produces in our population pyramid. Unfortunately, UCAS didn’t think to produce one, or even the statistics for the changes in age group size that they used to calculate their application rates – so I’ve done so for them.

Estimated and projected age structure of the UK population, 2010 and 2035


Even with a 10-year scale, it’s easy enough to see what’s happening. The baby boom generation are now in their sixties,their kids are in their forties, and grand-kids in their twenties – having been through university during the nearly 10 years from the turn of the century, in which their age group and therefore university applications were increasing in numbers virtually every year. We’ve now gone into reverse. This year and for some time to come the 17-20 age group will shrink each year, and, without anything else changing at all, we would expect university applications to fall.And that’s the point of using application rates to measure demand – to control for those year-to-year changes.

Time to look, then, at this year’s application rates, as reported by UCAS, but not by most of the media.  In England, application rates for 18-year olds were down not by 8%, but just 1%. OK, not that big a drop, but concentrated presumably in the most socially disadvantaged parts of the country, discriminating even further against those already severely under-represented in our universities? Well, no again. There was a larger decrease in the application rate from the most advantaged areas than from the most disadvantaged.  It would seem that allthe headlines about £9,000 fees didn’t entirely drown out the Government’s message about no first-time undergraduate having to pay any fees at all up-front.  Beastly, isn’t it, when you wait months for the facts, and then, when they do arrive, they refuse to fit the story!

Chris Game (Visiting Lecturer)
Politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.