How government leaders can balance the urgent with the important

The former British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked to identify most difficult thing about his job. His reply, “events, dear boy, events,” has long formed part of the British political lexicon. This is because it aptly summarises how the sheer unpredictability of life in government can lure leaders away from longer-term but perhaps more important objectives.

Take attempts by government leaders to transform the operations of a ministry or agency, for example. Let’s face it, we’ve all picked up a newspaper or logged onto a news site and read about the introduction of such a scheme. ‘Transformation’ conjures up images of energy and vigour, vitality and ambition, so it’s hardly surprising that such announcements are popular with our elected leaders.

Typically accompanied by much fanfare and an abundance of press releases and glossy brochures, the reforms, we are told, are “really important” and will modernise core departmental processes and strengthen the public impact of an organisation. A typical scenario sees accountability delegated to line management, who must deliver on the blueprint. A small project management office (PMO) operates behind the scenes, overseeing the direction of travel and ensuring that the plans stay on track. At least, that’s the idea.

From theory to reality

Unfortunately, as Harold Macmillan indicated, the reality of day-to-day business can often knock a government off course. When an urgent incident occurs, politicians react by constantly demanding updates and, soon afterwards, something else is bound to happen to further complicate the picture. With line management soon picking up on the fact that leadership attention is focused on the urgent and not the important, they follow suit and delegate responsibility further down the hierarchy.

The result, some six months later, is a transformation agenda well behind its milestones. Fast-forward six months further on and the discussion is likely to be about whether to abandon it as a major, centrally managed programme and leave it as a series of disconnected initiatives. But this would be too embarrassing and so the programme continues, at least formally.

Although some remain passionate about the agenda, the initial management of the PMO have all moved on, and the new team is smaller and more junior. Two years further down the line and there is a leadership change. The incoming leader is not committed to the transformation and it is finally shut down. The few who strove valiantly to drive the change are very disheartened but, for most, this is what they always suspected would happen. Another major reform programme fails to deliver.

So, what can be done to prevent this too familiar scenario from recurring?

Government leaders: visible to the vision

Key to solving this conundrum is leadership staying visibly committed for the long term. This, admittedly, is easier said than done. The nature of politics and the interests of politicians are often aligned to shorter-term political interests rather than longer-term impact. The sheer size and complexity of many public services, as well as specific tasks such as managing large IT programmes, are other factors that can that make the day-to-day managing of the machine an all-consuming task. However, it can be done.

An important starting point is to identify the urgent agenda and be very clear about how it differs from the longer-term programme. Leaders must also recognise up front that inevitable tension will exist between the two. A good way of ensuring that 100% of focus is trained on important priorities is to appoint a senior transformation leader with specific responsibility for the project. This will make sure that when urgent issues arise elsewhere – as they inevitably will – a senior individual will not lose focus.

It is also crucial to keep a close eye on the progress of any transformation agenda. Regular weekly or fortnightly progress meetings – lasting several hours and attended by the secretary, transformation leader and other key personnel – need to be sacrosanct in everyone’s diaries. Such gatherings are crucial to demonstrate the ongoing attention and interest of leadership.

And accountability matters. When some aspects of the transformation agenda fall behind, highly visible action needs to be taken to ensure there is a course correction. Without such accountability, the project stands little chance of success.

The complexity of a transformation programme means that no set manual or textbook exists that can cover all the bases. But if leaders expect the unexpected, and understand the differences between the important and urgent, then success – and a stronger public impact – is likely to move within reach.

 

This commentary has also been published by The Mandarin, Australia

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