Running the UK Civil Service with 'Two Jobs Bob'

By David Donaldson

October 16, 2015

For a while Lord Bob Kerslake’s nickname was ‘two jobs Bob’.

He wasn’t holding down just any two jobs. Between 2012 and mid-2014 he was both permanent secretary for the United Kingdom’s Department for Communities and Local Government and head of its Civil Service — a busy man.

In fact, although he’s no longer in charge of Britain’s public sector, these days his wife calls him ‘eight jobs Bob’, he joked at the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s annual conference on Thursday.

Kerslake was introduced as a Life Peer in the House of Lords in March this year — the first place he’s felt like a “young whippersnapper” in a long time — and sits as chair of a large London-based housing association and a major hospital. He also president of the UK Local Government Association.

After a long career as a public servant, which included 11 years as CEO of Sheffield city council in the north of England, Kerslake says he is enjoying the change.

“The really good thing about it is I can do what I want and say what I think, which is something you don’t have the luxury of when you are a civil servant or a public servant, so I’m making the most of it is what I can say,” he said.

His time in charge of the Department of Communities and Local Government, which ran from November 2010 to February 2015, was punctuated by the introduction of austerity in the UK, seeing the department’s workforce cut by over a third in the space of 18 months.

“It’s just as possible for the private sector to have eyes bigger than their belly as it is for the public sector.”

One of the key experiences he learned from throughout his career in public administration was the outsourcing of the housing benefits function during his time in charge of Sheffield council.

“You can learn an awful lot from the ones that have gone wrong,” he explained.

“What we did there was outsource our back office services — finance, IT, — and that had gone okay actually, and the company came to us and said, we think we can do more. We can run payments to those on low incomes for housing services. And we thought okay, we’ll give it a shot,” said Kerslake.

“So we tested it out, they came in significantly cheaper and they took on the contract.”

But within around six months the council started to realise there were problems with the contract.

“The backlogs piled up. And I think the learning point there — and I would say it took us two years to get it right — the learning point for me was, number one, it’s just as possible for the private sector to have eyes bigger than their belly as it is for the public sector,” he observed.

“They absolutely underestimated the complexity of doing it. The thing we got wrong was to be in denial about the scale of the problem. It often happens that once you’ve contracted something out, you’ve invested a lot of personal authority in doing that, so have they. So it takes a while before you acknowledge that something’s gone wrong, to be absolutely honest about it.”

Invest in leadership

“Leadership comes in different forms, and it isn’t all about the top leaders.”

Kerslake told the audience that good public sector leaders need to combine a wide range of skill sets.

Emphasising the importance of the public service working together with both political and community leaders, he recalled the efforts of a parents’ group to open an early learning centre in a disadvantaged part of Sheffield. Though he was initially sceptical, he ended up attending the opening within a few short years.

“It’s important to say that leadership comes in different forms, and it isn’t all about the top leaders,” he said.

The skills required of public sector leaders had changed in recent years, he argued.

“I think it’s different in that we still need technical skills, analytical skills, professional skills, but you need to have more than that in a good public sector leader. They have to be brilliantly good at influencing, both inside the organisations and outside, they have to be brilliantly good communicators, motivators of people,” he explained.

“They have to be agile and adaptable to changing circumstances that we face in terms of service delivery. Those things you aren’t taught when you become an accountant, as I was. That’s how I trained — I trained to become a very good accountant, but it isn’t the same as being a very good leader.”

He exhorted agencies to invest in their employees.

“I do genuinely think investing in the development of leadership is money well spent, because it is very different to when I first came into government. We need a whole set of different skills that weren’t there when I started my career,” he said.

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