The burden of effecting major change in the public sector will fall not only on the most senior leaders, but also on the ranks of middle managers, who will be critical to the process.
While some commentators are concerned that few existing middle managers will have experience of handling the kind of challenges that lie ahead as spending cuts bite, one recent polloffers ground for optimism.
The Public sector change: private sector opportunity survey found 77% of respondents thought they were either well or very well equipped to manage change, leaving 23% who said their organisations were quite or very poorly equipped to do so.
Some 51% of those polled said their key challenge was the impact of change on the services their organisations delivered, while 47% said it would be dealing with the impact of change on employees, such as redundancies and low morale. But a third said they were concerned by a lack of appropriate managerial experience and expertise.
Asked which areas of their organisations are key priorities in the year ahead, change management was mentioned by 86%, leadership training by 87%, workforce engagement and communications by 81% and middle management training and coaching by 79%.
"Middle management is critical to the change process," says Jane Cranwell-Ward, programme director for managing change at Henley Business School. "They are the glue in the middle."
She adds that those middle manager who have had project management experience, for instance in construction, are most likely to be proficient at driving through change.
No surprise then that Cranwell-Ward recommends the following skills and knowledge as key for middle managers managing change:
• setting objectives
• identifying responsibilities
• identifying risk
• identifying the effects of failure
• knowing how to manage and control processes
• setting milestones and meeting objectives on time
• engaging staff
"Keeping people engaged is very important," she says. "They need to know what's expected of them." This involves regular and open communications about impending and continuing change programmes.
Despite her view that public sector spending cuts are "too drastic and happening too quickly", Cranwell-Ward says there are some "very talented people in the public sector who will see things through".
They will need to be talented. Adrian Lock, consultant at independent management college Roffey Park says the challenge of change in the public sector is often underestimated. For example the average global petrochemical company has about 40 functions to manage, from HR to R&D, while an average unitary local authority might have 700 functions.
Lock says budget cuts of up to 25% on top of ongoing efficiency savings will put enormous strain on public sector middle management. "They may feel powerless and excluded from decisions but will have to implement them."
Emotionally intelligent and resilient
Lock believes that managing change in an emotionally intelligent and resilient way will probably be the central skill needed by public sector middle managers over the next five-10 years. "This is not something many middle managers are yet well-equipped for."
He adds that over the past nine months, Roffey has seen a sharp increase in public sector clients asking for programmes and conference presentations on the theme of building personal resilience.
Richard Crouch, lead officer on leadership and organisational development at the PPMA (Public Sector People Managers' Association) and head of HR and organisational development at Somerset county council, says that although public sector middle managers are used to change, it is the pace and complexity of current and upcoming changes that will challenge them.
"Local authorities are not used to changing direction in such a big way and the pace of change is 10 times faster than it was."
Apart from an increasing pace of change, Crouch says middle managers will have to re-configure the ways services are delivered and changing the ways in which staff work, which he sees as a major cultural shift where there will be less tolerance of poor performance. "The focus will be on consistently high performance."
Crouch adds that if they have not already done so, middle managers will have to acquire core business skills such as commissioning and project management and upgrade their people management ones.
In the short term, middle managers' jobs should be relatively safe, but the longer outlook is bleaker. "Middle managers will be in a safe position to start with as they are needed as change agents but, once that's happened, there'll be a major reduction in numbers," says Crouch. "That will happen when services are re-engineered."