Entrepreneurial leadership in the public space

Here is a personal view on entrepreneurship in public services from our Chief Officer for Regeneration, Kellie Beirne:

But that’s a paradox isn’t it?’ my colleague asked me when I outlined the purpose and thinking behind our ‘public service re-boot’ bid to NESTA’s Creative Councils programme.

I don’t know why I still manage to be surprised by such reactions. Frequently I am taken to task by people, keen to convey a fixed view that entrepreneurship and public value are diametric opposites.

If a law of inverse proportion was in operation, the more entrepreneurial public service becomes – they believe the further away we move from spending public money wisely and staying true to our social mission roots.

Comments which have been indelibly etched in my memory over the years range from, ‘but you’re an entrepreneur and I am leader, there’s a difference’ and, ‘that sounds like privatisation’ to ‘entrepreneurship means sailing close to the wind and our job is to avoid risk’.

Perhaps I overstate this clash of views somewhat because life has recently got a whole lot easier for a misfit like me.

The continuing climate of financial gloom and economic constraint has suddenly ignited a movement around ‘enterprising councils’. This is undeniably the right response but I have worked in public service and quasi-public-community service organisations nearly the whole of my career and have long observed opportunities (mainly missed) for councils to be more entrepreneurial, genuinely self-starting and socially enterprising.

And this was nothing to do with financial retrenchment for then we operated in times o’ plenty, where certainty and compliance reigned supreme.

We failed to adopt a ‘whatever the weather’ entrepreneurial mind-set because we just didn’t recognise the space where social meets commercial is where public value is maximised and exploited to the fullest effect.

Financial retrenchment may generate added impetus today, but really, the true driver for entrepreneurial leadership in the public space has to be about responding effectively to the changing demands and expectations our customers continue to place on public services.

I passionately believe customers care less about how things get done and more about what gets done.

So why pre-occupy ourselves with quality of services when its quality of life that’s the important thing? Why have all these mantras and orthodoxies about improvement and doing things better when it’s going to take something more fundamental than that?

Like how about doing better things?

Leading authority on innovation and creativity Charles Leadbeater, has a great one-liner that sums up beautifully the usefulness of some of the metrics we employ in public service to assess performance – ‘hit the target, miss the point’.

So I think it’s time for a new ‘forever’ value proposition that puts entrepreneurship at the heart of public services.

Of course it’s about us in ‘internal’ mode and how we shape and deliver services, but more than that, it’s about the way we relate to the world beyond our walls. This external dimension is key.

But can we do it until we genuinely understand what it means to embrace entrepreneurial leadership at the very heart of our public service organisations? I believe the kind of leadership we have promoted in public service over the years has been less about leadership and more about followership. We’ve encouraged our people to go on ‘leadership courses’ and gain academic and accredited qualifications. The ones I have had exposure too taught me how to ensure my staff had confidence in me as a leader rather than confidence in themselves. Can I? Instead of I Can.

I think back a lot to where I started out in public service and people often wrongly assume my background is economic or business development or something with a similarly ‘commercial’ focus. But my first real job as a trainee housing manager counting rough sleepers; managing homelessness, processing allocations, facilitating affordable housing development (all in-vogue at the time terms) and assisting a small scale stock transfer for older people – couldn’t be further from this perception.

So how could working to achieve the most social of missions be in anyway entrepreneurial?

Well for a start, I worked out that if I engaged in cross-sectoral partnerships exploited assets and values – I could deliver more and secure a better quality product. I learned to turn £1 of housing grant into £3 and through redefining ‘value’ as something more than having just a financial worth, I could demonstrate wider ways in which to make savings to the public purse. ‘Return on investment’ became a gauge through which I could evaluate social and economic impact. By adopting a business like discipline I could scale social impact.

Even in homelessness which is a relatively narrow field, there were ways of accelerating provision; new opportunities and ways of doing things. The important thing was to never allow the lack of available funding to limit horizons as there were always opportunities to mobilise the resources of others to make things happen.

A short while ago I was outlining the various components of our NESTA proposal to senior colleagues and I was talking about our take on cultivating entrepreneurship within the organisation (‘intrapreneurship‘) and the importance of giving people space and permission to think and do differently.

A question I was asked was how might a home carer who has to perform personal hygiene functions on someone’s behalf going to relate to intrapreneurship? The answer I think is we have to stop seeing intra/entrepreneurship as something that is exclusively connected with business, commerce and the private sector. Intrapreneurship is just about a mindset: the desire and will to do better things.

Dragon investor and serial entrepreneur Peter Jones makes a strong case for ‘reclaiming entrepreneurship in the public space’ and I couldn’t agree more. In local government we have never been shy about blurring sectoral boundaries and so civic regarding entrepreneurship is just demonstrating how new ideas can work at creating public value.

Part of this is facing the fear. When I speak to my colleagues about why we haven’t tried new things or pushed back boundaries the most frequently cited barrier is fear of failure. We have to make a virtue out of failing to encourage creativity and learning and understand that the benefits that come from allowing people to work in a culture where they feel free to have a go far outweigh the risks associated with getting our fingers burned once in a while.

Some people have told me that this sounds as if people should be encouraged to take flagrant risks. But I am afraid this is another of the misconceptions associated with entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs are not chancers or maverick daredevils with no sense of parameters or process operating purely on the basis of a hunch. Entrepreneurship does not mean a life devoid of structures and controls. On the contrary, entrepreneurs are adept business planners, systemic thinkers, and rigorous risk managers and whilst they may operate on values as opposed to rules, they understand the need to yield measurable and demonstrable outcomes.

This is why I object so much to a surprisingly prevalent view that entrepreneurs and leaders sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. For me, entrepreneurs and leaders are one and the same because entrepreneurs exercise leadership in pursuit of opportunity. And if not for the opportunity to fundamentally enhance people’s lives, why are we here?

So is Monmouthshire re-boot the answer? Well I am not sure there is a panacea for how local government culture should look and feel but I feel certain that what we’re talking about is new means and new ends; new foundations, pillars and systems.

We have to frame the challenges and opportunities in a different way in order to unlock new resources and more sustainable solutions. Intrapreneurship is not something we can capture in two lines on a job description – it is about creating that space for new ideas and thinking and in my experience, granting permission is usually all it takes.

People don’t want to leave their personalities at the door when they enter town halls every morning at nine because believe it or not, the skills and aptitudes they possess outside of work can add value to the day job beyond our wildest expectations.

Creating a networked culture where people are valued for the skills and abilities they bring to their role rather than the position they occupy in the chain of command has to be the goal.

We want to prototype a truly creative and intrapreneurial council and to do this we have started to broker relationships between the different players in public value. We have started to give a real legitimacy to entrepreneurship in and for the public space because we’re having the radical conversations which won’t allow us to accept the conventional answers. It feels good. It is good.



  1. […] Our focus is not just on doing things we do better but on doing better things. In other words, completely shaking our work up to ensure we use our skills to work on making people’s lives better, rather than just doing good work. This change can really affect how we make decisions and means we have to get much better at understanding and listening to the people of Monmouthshire. As Kellie Beirne says in her post on this blog: “why pre-occupy ourselves with quality of services when its quality of life that’s the important?”. […]

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