Memebership of the 700 club

It’s an exclusive club you don’t want to be a member of. The average tenure of an NHS chief executive is 700 days but the issue of the high turnover of senior managers is a concern across the public sector.

A study by consultancy Hoggett Bowers found that the main reasons for chief executive departures included difficulties in personal relationships with their chair or a senior figure in a stakeholder organisation, not successfully judging the “local politics”, and not recognising key power brokers. 

It is assumed that you acquire political awareness and sensitivity on your way up the career ladder and if you don't then you don't move up. But all too often managers and senior managers are left to learn by their mistakes.

Despite its importance, most middle and senior managers have never had any training or development in political skills.

This isn't good for the organisation or service transformation. Training to develop managers political skills would increase their political awareness and sensitivity and help them understand how democratic accountability impacts on decision making in the public sector.

Some important lessons

You don't tell politicians what they can and can't do.

You may be the professional, the one with the specialist knowledge and the years of experience but you were not elected and don't make policy. You advise on how their policy can be effectively implemented. You give options and spell out the implications.

It's not always about the strength of the business case

It may make good financial sense to close a hospital or transfer a service but politicians will have to take account of the strength of public opposition.

In politics you can support the strategy yet oppose its implementation

There is nothing contradictory in a politician supporting the move away from the use of landfill sites and campaigning against the building of an incinerator in their ward. 

Politicians are prepared to make unpopular decisions but only if it doesn't make them unpopular.

Budget cuts will always be unpopular but some groups have more influence than others and whilst everyone may have to feel the pain politicians will wish to protect some groups and services at the expense of others.

Politicians want to be seen to be changing things.

People enter politics for many reasons but all politicians like all managers claim to want to make a difference. In the case of politicians they want to demonstrate to their constituents that they are doing something hence their preoccupation with the photo opportunity, their emphasis on relations with the media and their fondness for “communication".

Sometimes you have to tell politicians what you won't do.

A politicians desire to be seen to be doing something can sometimes lead to over enthusiastic representation on behalf of an individual in conflict with the councils/ governments own policy concerning eligibility for a tenancy/home help/school place/immigration status or perhaps putting a little too strongly the case for a grant to a local voluntary group or attempting to circumnavigating the contract biding process.   The manager must hold the line to maintain a consistent approach and tactfully resist in appropriate pressure.

Blair McPherson author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future published by Russell House


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