Brendan Martin and Cormac Russell respond: Public service leadership at a time of ‘permacrisis’

February 20, 2024   By Brendan Martin, founder and MD of Public World, and Cormac Russell, founder and CEO of Nurture Development

Social entrepreneurs Brendan Martin and Cormac Russell share their take on Adam Lent’s recent blog about radical public service leadership developed with key figures in our network.

What does public service leadership involve in these ‘permacrisis’ days?

Adam Lent reported recently on discussions of this topic among a group of local government executives convened by New Local, which he leads, and he and they set a great example by sharing their thoughts as a work in progress.

As social entrepreneurs with many years’ experience of collaboration with public service organisations, we were impressed by their display of honesty and vulnerability, both of which qualities are as vital as they are refreshing in leaders.

Unlike local authority CEOs, neither of us has had the responsibility of leading organisations of the size, complexity or accountability arrangements that they do. As with so much in life, there is no substitute for lived experience.

What we do know about, however, drawing on decades of our own work, is the transformative power of enabling and supporting people to create their own solutions together, in both local communities and organisations.

Thanks not least to New Local, the general idea of ‘community power’ is becoming widely accepted, and is expressed in various ways, from ‘co-production’ to citizen’s assemblies. Similarly, within organisations, the value of ‘employee empowerment’ is becoming axiomatic.

Local government rules of engagement need to be more concrete and negotiated if power sharing is to succeed at scale.

Yet, as Adam notes, referring to this time of multifactorial ‘permacrisis’: “Current models of leadership have hardly begun to grapple with this new era in human affairs. The result is frameworks and principles that are too abstract, out of date and sometimes just too glib”.

We agree. In both external relationships with citizens and internally with their staff, local government rules of engagement – including the mutual obligations of all parties – need to be more concrete and negotiated if power sharing is to succeed at scale.

Not only the principles but also the operational responsibilities involved need to be explicitly agreed, clearly expressed and consistently applied, so that all can learn from experience and revise them through dialogue as necessary from time to time.

We have seen over many years experience of asset-based community development, in Cormac’s case, and of self-organised team work in Brendan’s, that with such an approach there is no need for the trade-off Adam implies between resilience and efficiency. On the contrary, they can be synergistic, along with improved quality of outcomes.

The sources of strength in both ‘community power’ and self-organisation need to be understood more precisely.

But to achieve those and other benefits, the sources of strength in both ‘community power’ and self-organisation need to be understood more precisely. Adam writes: “At a time of highly constrained resources, public sector institutions can’t hope to respond to the serious challenges of the permacrisis without augmenting those resources with the assets, energy and skills that exist outside the institution”.

We would turn that proposition around: start by learning about and understanding the “assets, energy and skills that exist outside the institution”, and build on and augment them with what communities say they need.

A parallel principle can guide how institutional leaders mobilise the knowledge and experience of their community-facing professionals, who need to be enabled and supported to make co-creative relationships across departments and organisations as well as with the citizens they serve.

Adam writes that “a radical leader would spend as much time out in the community as they do in the office” and become “the partnership builder-in-chief, identifying, understanding and connecting with the individuals, organisations, places that can work with their institution to meet the big challenges”.

Of course leaders should get out and about sometimes, but it is neither feasible nor desirable – and certainly not scalable – to assign the principal partnership building role to them. Rather, the leadership role is to create, nurture and sustain the institutional environment in which their professionals work like that all the time.

Our experience has shown that this can yield no end of “compelling narratives and eye-catching messages” that, as Adam suggests, can be used to proliferate the great untapped power within our communities and workforces.

A paradox we see in the perspective Adam sets out is that, while asserting the values of compassion and vulnerability in leaders, it demands more of them than they can possibly deliver. Indeed, by doing so it risks reinforcing the ‘hero leadership’ syndrome that can break them while failing to release the power of others.

We began by praising the openness displayed by the New Local initiative, which we respect and has made us think. We share this response in the same spirit of collegiate solidarity and with strong belief in its powerful potential.

Find out about the authors

  • Brendan Martin is founder and MD of Public World, and has developed his thinking and practice about self-organised team work in public services over more than 30 years in many countries. More from Brendan here.
  • Cormac Russell is founder and co-director of Nurture Development and the Community Renewal Centre, which works to animate communities and support professionals and organisations working in citizen space through asset-based community development (ABCD). More from Cormac here.

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