Future challenges and skills for (senior) managers in the European public sector – Julia Bosse & Alexander Heichlinger

centre_for_public_sector_excellence_skillsAs public administrations operate in increasingly complex and volatile environments, challenges such as tight budgets, technological innovation, decreasing trust, demographic change, environmental concerns and globalisation, governance and public management become more and more demanding.

There is (and must be!) a change from the bureaucratic, formal and hierarchical public institutions that are used to operating in relatively stable environments towards more agile organisations with flatter and more flexible hierarchies that are more resilient to current and future unpredictable environments. These changes are having a clear impact on public managers’ roles and skills, and related leadership styles and approaches across Europe.

According to a study on the future role and development of public administrations, carried out for the Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union[1], the main challenge for the public sector and its managers will be to balance two distinct sets of values: efficiency, effectiveness and productivity (stemming from the private world) and public sector values such as transparency, openness, inclusiveness and integrity.

Efficiency, effectiveness and productivity go hand-in-hand with aligning day-to-day tasks to operational goals, which in turn should be aligned with the (wider) objectives that contribute directly to overarching strategic priorities of a city, or a regional or national ministry. Thus, strategic thinking, strategic alignment of goals and budgets, and systems thinking are all important future public leader/manager skills  – in short, strategic leadership –  which many European public administrations currently lack. In addition, in order to anchor the institution’s values as well as strategies sustainably within the organisation, excellent communication with staff and being able to establish relationships and networks is crucial (cultural or communicative leadership). Hence, the visions have to be clear and understandable for all public sector employees across departments and agencies, regardless of their position. Public managers usually have high level of communication, but why is it not equally applied?

A recent EIPA publication on “Local Public Management Excellence” found similar results. The assignment analyses seven public management journeys from European cities and identifies lessons learnt. These lessons detail seven steps leading to local public management excellence. It stresses the importance of strong strategies and long-term visions as well as “tandem leadership” systems, i.e. political leadership matched with executive/managerial leadership in an administration. One (the politician) cannot “play” successfully in any public governance architecture or ensure a well-functioning public sector without the other (the CEO or alike). Often a win-win “deal” or agreement between politics and management is a must, embracing the whole of government, from definition to execution of the strategy, from management to finance, from results oriented trends to practices resonant and emotional leadership.

In many cases, senior public leaders anchored the change processes and overarching strategies very creatively: many involved good communication inside and outside the administration and thus managed to have the change process trickle down from the top level to the bottom level of the administration. The City of Mannheim’s (DE) approach is an ideal example in this respect: for instance, the city’s leadership created a document entitled “guidelines for leadership, communication and cooperation”, which established a common understanding of leadership for all city managers. This document became a code of conduct for the city leadership and is also used for recruiting new personnel in leadership/management positions, thus ensuring that the overall vision is implemented throughout the city. In addition, employees are polled at several times during the year to check if these values are lived up to by their superiors and in the organisation (in so called “climate check”). Many other inspiring best practices are available –for instance – in the EPSA by EIPA and/or OPSI data-platforms.

In current times of sluggish recovery from the economic crisis and strained public budgets, the importance of doing politics that are committed to quality management with sustainability and liquidity of public sector finances as guarantors for economic competitiveness, social policies, and the well-being of citizens are fundamental. This requires reformed and harmonised public sector budgeting, accounting and financial systems; which improve transparency, accountability and intergenerational equity. The CEFG Group (www.cefg.eu), created by the City of Barcelona together with EIPA in 2014 within its Economic and Financial Governance Initiative, showcases and contributes transnationally to European capacity building in these fields.

With the aforementioned challenges in mind, one very crucial aspect for public leaders is that they must integrate the double function of manager vs. leader because they need to inspire staff, but also respect their planning and monitoring obligations. A high degree of flexibility and the ability to identify the most appropriate behavioural style (leader or manager) in response to different situations is necessary.[2] In general, future management tasks will depend less on task control and delegation, and focus more on coordination and the promotion of processes, values and other decisive elements (leading by example).

A natural question arises from this blog entry published for the Catalan School of Public Administration (EAPC): Are the Catalan public sector and their leaders and managers prepared and equipped with these (leadership) concepts/styles and skills to steer their territory in the right direction?

Julia Bosse & Alexander Heichlinger
EIPA Barcelona


[1] Baltic Institute of Social Sciences & O.D.A.., 2015, “The Study on the Future Role and Development of The Public Administration”, Riga


[2] Baltic Institute of Social Sciences & O.D.A.., 2015, pp. 139f

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