Public Sector Leadership – An Oxymoron?

If you read the previous article on the Public Trustee of Queensland, you would have seen that most staff in the agency did not believe they had high-quality leadership. One would like to think that this situation is atypical in the public service, and the catastrophic results that befell their customers are rare. I am sorry to tell you that this is an idealistic assumption. Results from the Working For Queensland Survey show a lack of confidence in leadership across the Queensland Public Sector. And if the experience of the Public Trustee is anything to go by, then it is just a matter of time until more failings are revealed.

The latest results published for The Working For Queensland Survey[i] for the Public Trustee shows that this fish was rotting from the head. Most staff (60%) did not have any faith in their leaders. They did not believe they acted with integrity and did not model the behaviours expected from the rest of the staff. In addition, two-thirds of employees thought that the processes used to promote those to leadership positions were unfair.

The distressing thing is that the results for the Public Trustee were relatively good compared to many other public sector agencies. Here are some graphs that show the story of leadership across the sector. Due to the relative age of the results, the agencies have been de-identified.

Is Public Sector Leadership Of High-Quality?

In one-third of departments, most employees believe they do not have high-quality leadership. Three departments had similar leadership results to the Public Trustee.

In three-quarters of health services, employees have no faith in the quality of their leaders. Seven services had similar or worse leadership results than the Public Trustee.

In one-third of other public sector agencies, the majority of employees do not have confidence in their leaders. Four agencies had similar or worse results on the leadership quality score compared to the Public Trustee.

On average, across the public sector, in 2019, half of all employees did not believe their agency had high-quality leadership.

Do Public Sector Leaders Act With Integrity?

In 30% of departments, most employees believed their leaders do not act with integrity. Two departments had similar leadership results to the Public Trustee.

In three-quarters of health services, the majority of employees did not believe their leaders acted with integrity. Eight services had similar or worse leadership results than the Public Trustee.

In 28% of other public sector agencies, the majority of employees believed their leaders did not act with integrity. Three agencies had similar or worse results on the leadership quality score compared to the Public Trustee.

Across the public sector, in 2019, one in every two employees thought that their leaders did not behave with integrity.

Are Public Sector Leaders Good Role Models?

In 38% of departments, most employees believed their leaders do not role model expected behaviours. Two departments had similar leadership results to the Public Trustee.

In 88% of health services, the majority of employees believed their leaders displayed hypocritical behaviour. Seven services had similar or worse results than the Public Trustee.

In 40% of other public sector agencies, the majority of employees believed their leaders did not role model expected behaviours. Six agencies had similar or worse results on the leadership quality score compared to the Public Trustee.

Across the public sector, in 2019, 52% of employees did not believe their leaders presented positive role models for expected workplace behaviours.

What Does This Mean?

These figures show that leadership in the public sector is failing, and it means that inefficiencies and incompetence continue to squander public funds. If only half of your people are behind you, you have to work twice as hard to deliver results (or at least the half who believe in you do). This suggests incredible inefficiencies in the public sector. Also, when employees do not have faith in their leaders, they are less likely to exert Innovative Work Behaviours (IWB), meaning that these agencies are also losing the race to innovation and improvement. Ultimately, you end up with a workforce that is disenchanted, demotivated and disengaged, and a public that is being short-changed in the service they are being provided.

As shown by the Burke and Litwin Model of Organisational Performance, leadership plays a pivotal role in the organisation’s effectiveness. It influences strategy, structure, systems, and individual and organisational performance. Poor leadership ingrains inefficient and ineffective systems and practices, and the longer it is allowed to flourish, the more dire and entrenched the situation becomes. The fact that, on average, half of the public sector employees believe that their leaders were not of high-quality means that (if it hasn’t happened already) the demise of their wellbeing and performance is just a matter of time. With their productivity goes the performance of the entire organisation and the sector. We end up with second-rate public services.

What Does Low-Quality Leadership Look Like?

One could argue that there is no such thing as low-quality leadership, that the two terms cannot coexist, that it is an oxymoron (thank you Brittinay Lenhart[ii]). However, I take the point that people can be in leadership positions, although not act like leaders at all. So what does it mean when staff say their leaders are not of high quality? Well, given that there is no definition provided in the survey, one can only assume that people judge how they are enacting the public sector values. So, I hypothesise that low=quality leadership refers to the following antithesis of the values. Some examples of low-quality leadership behaviours are provided below. Do these sound like anyone you know?

Public sector valuesHigh-quality leadership behavioursLow-quality leadership behaviours
Customers first  Know your customers
Deliver what matters
Make decisions with empathy  
Disbelieve or disregard customers
Focus on the ribbon-cutting events
Listen to the loudest voice (for example, Minister)
Criticism over compassion
Conflict over communication
Ideas into action  Challenge the norm and suggest solutions
Encourage and embrace new ideas
Work across boundaries
Stick to the status quo
Ostracise and punish dissenters and disruptors
Feel challenged by new ideas
View innovation as hard work
Maintain silos at all costs
Unleash potentialExpect greatness
Lead and set clear expectations
Seek, provide and act on feedback
Tolerate mediocrity
Promote or ignore poor performance as a convenience
Don’t invest or fully utilise your people
Concentrate on complaints instead of compliments
Don’t worry about goals or targets – that sounds like too much accountability!
Treat your people like children
Prevent honest feedback
Spin negative feedback
Establish committees and working groups to delay action
Be courageous  Own your actions, successes and mistakes
Take calculated risks
Act with transparency  
Blame others for mistakes
Take credit for successes
Deny responsibility
Shift accountability
Be totally risk averse
Hide any critical information
Report only the stuff that makes you look good
Empower peopleLead, empower and trust
Play to everyone’s strengths
Develop yourself and those around you
Dictate
Micro-manage
Focus on weaknesses to make yourself feel good
Deny need for development
Deskill your workforce by lack of investment (they are easier to control that way)
Hire consultants instead of empowering your people (after all your people are deskilled!)

If these descriptions are accurate, then the public sector is at least half-full of the latter kind of leaders. It is in great trouble indeed.

Perception Is Reality

I understand those who say that these results are based purely on employee perception and therefore do not represent the actual effectiveness of agency leadership. However, to this argument, I make the following points:

  • With leadership, perception is reality. It does not matter if your DG has 27 medals for bravery. If they lack integrity in the workplace and espouse hypocrisy, employees will see through the façade. Performance is ultimately contingent on the goodwill of your employees, and if you do not have their confidence, then there will be negative organisational consequences. These can be on display, such as in the case of the Public Trustee. Or they can be hidden in the form of mediocrity dressed up as a success. These consequences can be evident in public mistakes or invisible in the form of missed opportunities for improvement and excellence. Just think, the cruelty of the Public Trustee was very well hidden until journalists took the case to the Supreme Court to fight for the public interest.
  • What other measure is there? If there is another measure of leadership performance in the public sector, please point me in its direction. If there is none, then this survey stands as a proxy. It also presents a challenge then to develop better ways of measuring and holding people accountable for their performance. I think the people of Queensland deserve to know that our agency heads’ incredible salaries are a good return on investment.

What Next?

I can only hope that individual agencies and the Public Service Commission have put more work into analysing these results than I have. More importantly, I pray they are taking effective action to ensure they have strong and positive leadership so that the public sector can deliver the best for their employees and customers. I would worry that the people of Queensland are significantly let down if they are not.

I will be contacting the Public Service Commission to find out when later results will be published on Open Data and seek to update results as they come to hand. Stay tuned…


[i] The latest published results are from 2019

[ii]The Leader Oxymoron | LinkedIn

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