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Front-line autonomy in public services is vital to keep pace with COVID-19

Michael Wyatt argues that public sector leaders have a responsibility to empower front-line staff to make decisions to best cope with the rapidly changing context COVID-19 presents.

COVID-19 has triggered an unprecedented need for public sector organisations to alter service delivery to ensure communities’ health and social care needs are met. Such extreme adaptation has relied on rapid decision making, made possible by cutting away red-tape and empowering staff to make decisions. Public sector leaders must listen to front-line staff and maximise their organisation’s thinking and communication skills to generate quality solutions at speed to keep pace with the changing environment.

The efficacy of this approach is seen in Portsmouth’s response to the pandemic, highlighted as good adult social care practice by the Local Government Association. Portsmouth have streamlined social care practices, adapted their support to care homes and their discharge approach to increase the number of people who can return home from hospital. Key components of their success have been to ‘give staff the freedom to think differently; strip back processes…[and] allow the right person to make the decision without the need for sign-off’.

Emotional intelligence is often assigned to leaders with good listening and communication skills. A leader that instills these values within the organisation by listening to front-line staff and embracing autonomous decision making creates an emotionally intelligent organisation better placed to cope with crisis. An emotionally intelligence workforce is one that can communicate effectively and helps others to think and communicate better by reducing stress, strengthening relationships and effectively overcoming challenges.

Granting front-line staff the autonomy to make decisions is most beneficial when the quality of ideas generated is high. Linking to the benefits of emotional intelligence, Nancy Kline’s ‘Time to Think’ presents the notion that ‘the quality of a person’s attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking’. The environment we create as listeners impacts the ability of thinkers to process and verbalise their thoughts. The role of public sector leaders is therefore to both permit decision making across their organisations and create an environment that maximises the ability of staff to generate quality solutions and communicate them effectively.

Kline argues that the optimal conditions for thinking are ‘gentle, quiet, without urgency. Stimulating, but not competitive’. Responding to COVID-19, one might argue, requires urgency. However, Kline is referring to the absence of internal urgency brought on by interruptions, which denies individuals the chance to bring thoughts to completion. By creating an environment where individuals know that they will not be interrupted, they can relax and form quality solutions on their own or as part of a team, and therefore be more likely to understand and implement them effectively. This can be achieved by setting basic ground rules in meetings and wider staff interactions that prohibit counter-productive behaviours, such as interruptions, with the long-term ambition of creating an emotionally intelligent culture organisation that respects and encourages people’s time to think.

The role of public sector leaders is to provide opportunities for and support staff to formulate effective solutions to the front-line problems they face rapidly and effectively – not to generate solutions for them. Attention, though, is not always enough. There is often a need to ask the right questions to break down assumptions that limit exploration of new ideas. Incisive questions break down assumptions by identifying the limiting assumption and replacing it with a freeing one, before drawing them back to their original goal.

For example, rather than starting a discussion about changing GP appointments to adapt to COVID-19 with ‘people only like coming in to see their doctor in person’, remove this assumption with the incisive question: ‘if we could implement a solution that provides people access to their GP and limits the spread of COVID-19, what would this be?’. This breaks down barriers, enhances the scope for change and increases the likelihood of arriving at an effective solution.

Public sector leaders have a responsibility to find time to think, listen and pay attention to their teams more than ever, while providing the necessary support and guidance to enable staff to adapt. The resilience and delivery of our vital public services is dependent on front-line staff coping on a daily basis. To do this, they must be empowered to make effective decisions in an environment that harnesses their ability to do so.

To discuss how to enhance your team’s ability to generate effective solutions to complex problems, contact Michael on michael.wyatt@mutualventures.co.uk.

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