If you want my advice ...

Giving and receiving advice is good management practice, but in over intellectual organisations such as the public sector the message can sometimes go awry. Eifion Rees looks at the issues
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Michael Gove
Listen up: schools minister Michael Gove famously failed to follow any advice - and almost lost his job as a consequence. Photo: Getty

Looking for a masterclass in dealing with advice? Step forward, Michael Gove.

Back in July, the new schools minister published a mistake-riddled list of projects cancelled (or not, as it turned out) under the axed £55bn Building Schools for the Future initiative.

Forced to apologise in the Commons, Gove pointed the finger at the Partnerships for Schools quango – and promptly got the finger right back.

Tim Byles, head of the now-defunct organisation, explained to a cross-party Commons education select committee that he had suggested Gove validate the data: "This advice was not followed."

While it may be no surprise that ministers are loath to let the facts get in the way of a good policy, advice – both dealing with it and dishing it out – is an integral part of effective public sector management.

Getting advice accepted in the first instance is vital, says Justin Spray, director of Mendas, a firm of chartered occupational psychologists working with the FSA, DoH, Home Office and Cabinet Office, as it is unlikely to be reconsidered later.

Factual correctness is a large part of this, but facts aren't everything.

"In overly intellectual organisations, such as in the public sector, many individuals think it is all about rational argument, the facts speaking for themselves. This leads to frustration and demoralisation when clever ideas and advice is ignored, and the public may miss out on potentially useful ideas that get lost between a civil servant's out-tray and the despatch box." [See below for his tips on advice-giving].

Alan Downey, head of public sector at KPMG, says an excessive dependence on management consultants has meant some managers coming to rely less on their own judgement.

"If there were new policies to implement or programmes to deliver it became a kneejerk reaction to turn outside for advice, rather than working it out for themselves.

"There is a culture of dependency within parts of the public service, and it will be difficult for some managers to wean themselves off their external advisors."

In terms of the advice managers should be seeking from their teams, dealing with redundancies is a major issue, one in which it will pay to heed the example of the private sector and accept pay freezes or cuts, take unpaid sabbaticals or adopt short-time working.

"Several companies have taken the view that they are all in it together, and better they all share some pain than a few lose their jobs. I don't yet see any evidence that public sector managers and staff are having a debate about how to cut costs in such a way as to avoid the predicted 490,000 job losses," Downey.

Thinkers and doers

Eivor Oborn, a lecturer in public management at Royal Holloway University and a fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School, says that the public sector is characterised by a "thinkers and doers" mentality that limits managers' choices in terms of advice-seeking. Put simply, they tend to trust their own.

"The extent to which managers do or don't engage with those from whose advice they might benefit will stymie their advice-seeking behaviour. It is a phenomenon of advice-seeking within networks that if we need advice from those who are not within our strong network of ties, we are less likely to seek it."

Because central and high-level managers don't think of their workers as people they can seek advice from, she says, they outsource advice-seeking to consultants. Tighter budgets will make it more likely that managers will seek to learn from one another, ask researchers and academics for their insights, and reach out to their teams and employees.

"If they capitalise on that opportunity they need to acknowledge the value of the advice, however – this is particularly important with frontline staff. A lot of good advice can be generated if the manager is responsive and appreciative of the feedback. Many of these people see the issues clearly but aren't always able to articulate it to those who are in a position to do something about them."

And if the eventual articulation isn't something you want to hear? Spray recommends a period of quiet reflection before responding. "You will only be as good as the advice you receive so you want to encourage high-quality, challenging advice. If people reporting to you feel that their comments will be dismissed out of hand or ridiculed they will think twice about making any next time. They may even have a quiet chuckle to themselves as they imagine your own uninformed ideas being ripped apart by your colleagues at the next senior management meeting."

Justin Spray, Mendas: advice on giving advice

• Look at the situation from the perspective of the advisee: understanding the challenges facing them will help in making the advice you offer more useful

• Keep advice brief but clear. Practice how you are going to deliver your message so that none of the key messages is lost.

• Positive ideas and calls to action are more appealing than recommending not doing something or doing nothing. If you don't have a new idea, try to frame your point as an improvement, a departure from the status quo.

• Consider providing advice as an opportunity to influence then employ influencing strategies. Which stakeholders do you need to engage? How can you build up peer pressure? Your voice alone might not be heard but will the issue be attended to if the whole department is saying the same thing?

• If your advice is going to be difficult to swallow, allow people time to reflect so that they don't react negatively and hastily. Once someone has adopted a position it is difficult for them to move away from it so do what you can to avoid them painting themselves into that corner.

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