Under what conditions are decisions best made? Football managers and the public sector

Ian Briggs

I am not much of a football follower, but I am becoming increasingly bemused by the fascination for premiership clubs in becoming so closely associated with their managers. You can hardly fail to notice that the headlines stories on the back pages of newspapers concentrate a great deal on the relative merits of the approaches taken by the current crop of managers. Am I alone in thinking that they get more attention now than the players?

Their very personalities are so great that they now appear to be at least as important as the club itself. Success or failure on the pitch is often put down to the decisions of the manager and less on the relative performance of the players. Sir Alex Ferguson leaving Manchester United and Jose Mourinho becoming so much intertwined with Chelsea has got me thinking about our assumption that consensual decision-making is an absolute necessity within the public services – when compared to the unilateral decisions made by football club managers that are viewed as key factors in match results.

The committee system that we have lived within in local government for so many years, albeit often under a charismatic chairperson, is the very embodiment of consensual decision-making. A problem is placed within the political arena and through open discussion and challenge a decision is arrived at that is seen to be within some level of agreement and indeed consensus to be an appropriate means of doing business. For quite some time we have concentrated upon inter-agency partnership working where bringing together expertise from a range of organisations implies that the benefits of consensual decision-making are a necessity to cope with the complexity of delivering public services.

So, whilst on the one hand we have an acceptance of bringing together a group to concentrate on an issue of public interest either within management teams, committees or a partnership, on the other hand we are experimenting with non-consensual decision-making of certain prominent leaders in public life. Witness the debate over the relative merits of executive Mayors in local government (at best an unresolved argument) and the singular independent role of Police and Crime Commissioners as examples.

When things go wrong we may want to have a ‘head to roll’; if a football club is not winning then the supporters call for the sacking of the manager – even in some cases hiring aeroplanes to fly over the football ground with messages flapping from their tails to that effect. How different is this to occasional lurid tabloid newspaper headlines calling for the removal of a senior manager or politician if there is perceived poor performance in a public sector organisation. In some cases they could perhaps do the honourable thin and fall on their swords if the consequence of a bad decision (even if it is a decision they have merely endorsed rather than made themselves) has challenging or inappropriate and unintended consequences. All this leads to a gradual shift towards the public needing to have a strong, singular individual making decisions – eschewing consensus.

So under what conditions are decisions best made? In open, consensual arenas (even if committees often operate behind closed doors) or through a singular, individual focal point around a decision as in the case of football club managers?

Since Rittel and Webber formally described wicked problems in the early 1970s, we have debated what they mean for those who are in public management and leadership and are facing issues where there is little agreement over the exact nature of the problem. This has opened up much debate on the benefit of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to focus their attention upon complex problems – and let’s face it, the list of these things seems to be growing! Is it because we see more and more ‘wicked’ issues and we have a relative lack of success in solving them that we are now becoming drawn towards a less consensual form of decision-making?

In his highly provocative book If Mayors Rules the World, Benjamin R. Barber offers the view that large nation-states with complex democratic consensual decision-making processes are poorly placed to deal with the complex and wicked issues faced today. If we were to place decision-making and leadership into the hands of one individual then the scope for clear direction setting and making brave and original decisions may increase and therefore be favourable to placing decisions in the hands of committees and stakeholder groups which often lead to stasis, mass avoidance and confusion. The subtext here is that we need to place a higher value on charismatic and visionary leadership; however, have not some of the most dangerous individuals in history conformed to this typology? As I am no student of football neither am I a student of history, but when Europe was a collection of small nation and city states this did seem to lead to war and violent competition!

To complicate matters a little further we might have degrees of consensuality in decision-making. Last week after the second reading of the hybrid bill for HS2, Parliament endorse the decision to press ahead with the project. Having all party agreement is important on a problem that has wicked characteristics such as this one. The next stage could be to ‘sell’ the decision to the public and the wider stakeholder community on the basis that it is a better decision because it has this degree of consensus. HS2 could be seen as valid in the public eye as it has this right level of political and stakeholder consensus, while it we had a football club style manager making the decision alone on HS2 there would be uproar.

So where does this leave us? Are we exploring the limits of consensual decision-making? The advent of new governance arrangements in health is perhaps a good current example of where through bringing together groups of stakeholders an assumption is made that the consensual approach to decision-making is most appropriate. However, the dynamics of bringing together multiple parties has disadvantages as well as assumed benefits. Successive studies suggest that when things get complicated (for this read ‘wicked’) and more and more perspectives and opinions are introduced into groups, then the more likely it is that an incidence of ‘multiple-uncertainty’ will occur. In short, there are too many holes in the process of deciding for any potential solution to fall into and be subsequently forgotten.

To avoid this inefficiency, decisions could be placed in the hands of one responsible and accountable person. The football team has not lost because the specialist coach who deals with the players in attacking roles has not done their job properly, nor is it because the players on the opposing side were better on the day. It is because the one individual at the top of the pecking order has failed to apply the correct strategy and not motivated the players well enough to win. In the post-match review, conducted usually in the full glare of the media spotlight, it is the manager who gets it in the neck because his (and remember it usually is a ‘his’) decisions were not deployed effectively during the game. On the specific issue of gender, it is worth noting that there are multiple studies which suggest that most women will be more effective than men in complex situation as they display a preference for consensual decision-making.

So, should we be concerned about whether decisions are best made in consensual or non-consensual arenas? Are we right to assume that the most effective way of leading through wicked decision is through strong individualised leadership that downplays where other stakeholders have differing ideas and preferences for solutions? In the end it may not matter and ultimately be down purely to contingency and circumstances – in some circumstances we must take others with us and in differing circumstances we need to have stand out leadership that prospers or fails on the basis that they deploy non-consensual decision-making and have the robustness and capacity to live with the public ridicule and criticism that this can bring. But we do seem to have conflicting approaches: local democracy was founded upon an add mixture of the checks and balances of consensual devision-making, yet we seem to be seeking new heroes and heroines. The committee was the place for shared and distributed responsibility, but remember that even a committee has a chairperson – their role might not be to just endorse the decision the majority comes to but also to create the conditions that are required to make a good decision.

I am a little shocked that as someone who has only a passing interest in football at best, I can now rattle off the names of managers and the clubs they lead. If top class football is a place where non-consensual decision-making is being played out with some success then we should step back and think about our approaches to open consensual decision-making in the world of public services. Would we be better served if we did have less of this and more of the singular, individualist decision-making here as well? My discomfort with this though of the potential benefits of the hero and heroine decision-makers who dismiss consensual mechanisms is equally by my bemusement at why I am interested in football after years of boredom with the game. But it seems that the football managers of today are at least asking questions of our understanding of the best approaches to decision-making in complex situation. Fancy a new job, Sir Alex?


Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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