Public leadership as a call to action

Dr. Catherine Durose

In uncertain and challenging times, an important part of the role of leadership in public services can play lies in offering a narrative that helps people to understand what may be happening and mobilise their support to address the problem. But what tools can public leaders use to do this effectively?

Borrowing from the civil rights movements and grassroots and labour organizing, public narrative is a skill aiming to motivate others to join you in action. Associated with the work of Marshall Ganz at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, public narrative offers a framework to ‘show not tell’ how shared experiences reveal our shared values. This emphasis on leadership as a form of ‘sense making’ was the focus for discussion for a panel of local public leaders, who joined our Masters in Public Administration students last week. We invited leaders to share with our students, their motivations to lead.

Joining us fresh from the ‘momentous victory’ in the Birmingham care workers dispute, UNISON Regional Organiser, Ravi Subramanian drew a powerful link between his first-hand experiences of racism growing up in 1970s Grimsby and this recent campaign. Ravi reflected on the ‘golden thread’ of not being listened to by those in power, and the need to effectively organise to challenge this.

Claire Spencer, Acting Head of Inclusive Growth and Public Sector Reform at West Midlands Combined Authority, is developing strategy for how economic growth can benefit all in the city-region. Claire drew on her family experiences of displacement due to conflict to reflect on her own privilege and desire for everyone to have the safety and opportunity to thrive and how this has informed her journey as a leader.

Sophie Wilson, Director of Research for BVSC, an organisation that champions and supports the voluntary sector in Birmingham, reflected on how her early experiences of volunteering in a women’s refuge brought home the complex and inter-connected nature of issues such as homelessness, substance misuse and mental health, that has shaped her career as a leader in the third sector. Sophie shared both the emotional labour involved in leading through periods of change and uncertainty, and the opportunity that this offered for personal growth and learning.

By sharing their narratives with our students, these leaders humanised what it means to lead in public services, not only the moments of self-doubt and unlikely trajectories, but how early experiences can inform and catalyse leadership aspirations, and mobilise others to join you.

Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at the Institute of Local Government Studies and recent Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Government at the University of Birmingham. Catherine is a leading expert on urban governance and public policy, interested in questions of how we initiate and facilitate inclusive decision-making and social change in urban contexts. She has sought to address this question in her research, with particular focus on issues such as intermediation, participation, decentralisation and democratic innovation.

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