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How to be an inspiring public-sector leader in the time of COVID

5 Min Read

Times are tough. There’s no getting around it. UK borrowing is expected to hit £517 billion this year.¹ At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic, borrowing for the next twelve months was forecast at £55 billion.¹ As if that weren’t enough, GDP is forecast to shrink by 10% this year.²

Anyone leading a public-sector team or organisation knows what that means — tighter budgets and lean times. While resources get tighter, demand is likely to increase. Unemployment, currently at 3.9%,² is forecast to rise to 8.3% by the end of the year.³ The number of people in poverty in working families is at an all-time high.⁴

For public-sector organisations, there is only really one response to this: rising to the occasion. Yes, there will be struggles for more budget, for better resource allocations and for political priorities that put service-users, people, first. But even while these are going on, public-sector organisations must find a way to help those who depend on them through the difficult times ahead.

For leaders in the sector, that means finding a way to inspire those they manage, even when the going is hardest. But what’s the best way to do that?

Inspiration isn’t an abstract concept

People are inspired when they believe in what they are doing, feel like they’re making a difference and have confidence in those who lead them.If we simply tell people to be more inspiring, in the worst-case scenario we end up with already over-burdened managers doing a poor impression of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. This helps no one.

What’s required, is method: a data-based approach that gives practitioners a practical framework upon which to develop leadership strategies that meet their organisation’s and their users’ needs.

The first step toward developing a leadership strategy for 2020 and beyond, is to identify the nature of the challenges the team faces.

The best way to start with this task, is to gather a broad range of data, in a way that combines the insights of staff and users with high-quality quantitative inputs.

As part of such an information gathering exercise, public-sector organisations can:

  • Draw on service user, and external data to scope the expected extent of need in the period covered by the planning exercise.
  • Identify forces that demand strategic change, ranging from macro-economic conditions to changing user needs and other demands on the organisation.
  • Map the stakeholder groups — internal and external — whose participation is important to achieving your organisation’s strategic goals.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of combining both data-driven and human insights in these exercises. Only by doing so, can you transform inert data into useful information from which you can draw valuable insights.

From strategy to action

Once the data-gathering and analysis is complete and you have both the insights and a viable plan based on those insights, the next task is to build a system of collaborative working between the different internal and external stakeholders you’ve identified.

Using the data from your scoping exercise, you should be able to identify the actions required from each group and the importance of each group. This will let you assign a weighting to each group’s workstream, allowing you to allocate resources in an evidence-based manner.

As part of this process, it’s extremely effective to formulate, test and refine models of partnership and collaborative working that bring different groups together to work on common and complementary goals. You can refine and optimise these approaches as you work, drawing on qualitative and quantitative measures of success to judge performance against pre-set goals.

This then feeds into a continuous-improvement model which considers not just the aims of the organisation or the project — though naturally these are the key metric — but also the effectiveness of each stakeholder or group’s collaboration with other parties within the process.

The aim is to maximise the benefits to and the outputs from each group and from the project or process as a whole, allowing the organisation to meet service-user needs in a way that’s as effective and sustainable as possible.

With a leadership strategy that mixes human understanding with data-based insights and a high-level of engagement with staff and service users, it’s possible to maintain high levels of optimism and enthusiasm, even when times are hardest.

The University of Birmingham’s Online Masters of Public Administration equips recent graduates and public sector professionals with the skills needed for a successful career within the public sector to deliver social value within an increasingly complex world. If you’re ready to rie to these challenges, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team.

We also offer a portfolio of 8-week Postgraduate Microcredentials for those busy professionals who can’t commit to a full time programme of study. Visit our short online courses in public administration page to find out more.


  1. UNKNOWN (2020) UK finance ministry sees budget deficit hitting 337 billion sertling: Telegraph. Reuters [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.10.2020]
  2. SEARLES, M. (2020) UK GDP forecast to shrink by around 10 per cent in 2020. City A.M. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.10.2020]
  3. UNKNOWN (2020) Forecasts for the UK economy: August 2020. HM Treasury [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.10.2020]
  4. INMAN, P. (2020) Number of people in poverty working families hits record high. The Guardian [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.10.2020]

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