19 Sep 2013

The political astuteness of public servants

New research by The Open University Business on the political astuteness of public servants shows that leadership by top public servants working on a daily basis with elected politicians is like “dancing on ice”. Politician and public servants, whether at national or local level, work together on a slippery surface and in the media spotlight, as they grapple with complex public policy and delivery issues.

The research findings come from two linked OU reports. One report examines the political astuteness skills of UK public servants at the top of their game as they work closely with ministers and local authority political leaders. This report is based on in-depth interviews.

The second report, published jointly with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the Chartered Management Institute, examines the political astuteness skills of over one thousand senior and middle level public servants in three countries: Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and analyses those skills in working not only with elected politicians but also with a wide range of stakeholders (such as partner agencies, business firms, the media – and the public).

Both these reports confirm the crucial importance of public officials developing and practicing skills of political “nous” as part of their professional wisdom and judgement. .

These findings are particularly relevant and timely, given that the roles and relationships between public servants and politicians are the focus of several current UK policy debates and a recent report by the Public Administration Select Committee.

Far from the caricatures of popular TV satires like ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘The Thick of It’, the OU research shows that most senior public servants are conscious and careful about the need to be politically astute yet remaining politically neutral.

The report ‘Dancing on Ice: Leadership with political astuteness by senior public servants in the UK’ uses information from frank in-depth interviews with 17 of the UK’s most senior public servants to explore how public servants work with elected politicians in tackling complex problems. The interviews are anonymised and have therefore provided some really deep and fresh insights into the challenges for officials of working closely with politicians under the spotlight of public accountability and media scrutiny.

The second report Leading with political astuteness: A study of public managers in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom reinforces these insights, by drawing on large-scale quantitative research surveys and interviews in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The majority of the 1000+ managers surveyed viewed political astuteness as a crucial set of skills to get their work done wisely and well, by enabling them to work effectively with different stakeholders both inside and outside the organization and to reconcile conflicting interests.

Jean Hartley, Professor in Public Leadership at The Open University, co-author of both reports said: “Politics is sometimes seen as a dirty world to be avoided by professionals, but the senior managers we interviewed have a very positive understanding of its centrality within a democratic process of government and service delivery. They see politics as including alliance-building with many stakeholders in the public, private and voluntary sectors to achieve agreed outcomes that add value to the public sphere. Political astuteness is therefore key to their success as managers in achieving such outcomes. Our research shows that political astuteness involves not only personal and interpersonal skills, but also “reading” people and situations, building alignment and alliances, and strategic direction and scanning as they deal with contested issues and paradoxical situations.”

Leading with Political Astuteness was supported by the Chartered Management Institute. Ann Francke, CMI’s Chief Executive, said “Political nous is a more important part of leadership today than ever before, thanks to the growing need for collaboration and partnership between organisations and across sectors. But until now, there’s been a very hit-and-miss approach to developing these critical skills. That needs to change. Whether it’s giving managers the chance to learn by putting them in new situations, or by using insights from more formal assessment tools, employers can do much more to develop their managers’ political astuteness.”

Stella Manzie, Honorary Senior Research Fellow of The Open University, carried out 17 in-depth UK interviews with permanent secretaries in central government and chief executives in local government (including some former senior civil servants and chief executives, who were able to speak very frankly) Some described the relationship of appointed officials with elected representatives as being like a marriage, where trust is key. All focused on the importance of a non-partisan position and their own integrity and how political astuteness helped their relationship with politicians and stakeholders.

Stella said: “There is a very particular combination of knowledge, judgement and skills required from public servants at the political/professional interface to serve their lead politician and act in the public interest in today’s political context. The evidence in the Dancing on Ice report may change perceptions of senior public servants; it is particularly relevant in giving insights into the qualities which are needed to maintain effective support to UK political leaders in central and local government.”

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