Can the Public Sector Transition Successfully into the 21st Century?

The time has come for transformational leadership in the public sector.

If one is to explore the future well, the most important thing is to know how much influence our paradigms exert on our perception of the world around us (Barker Joel A, 1993). For most of us transforming leadership in the public sector almost sounds paradoxical to the point of impossibility. This paradigm might be justified given the bureaucratic structures, economic self interest and the politics that have pervaded the sector for decades. The big question is: can the public sector transform to create something new and different?

With the accelerated pace of development globally, we see the age of knowledge capitalism on the horizon. There have been slight shifts from historical capitalism where the owners controlled the factors of production (land, labour capital). In today’s knowledge economy, there is no doubt that the knowledge workers provide the intellectual capital that creates value for the organisation. This new environment calls for revolutionary change and dovetails the need for a transformational leadership ethos to compel a vision that will effectuate the changes necessary if the public sector is to survive.

According to Hewlett (2006), in the new global entrepreneurial economy, knowledge has become the clear delineating element of success. Therefore, the public sector must jettison with the old notions of productivity based on bureaucratic and hierarchical systems of operations to solve 21st century problems. Bureaucracy is the antithesis of innovation and creativity. The public sector must establish and communicate the link between knowledge, innovation, creativity and strategy as essential steps in restructuring the sector. It must embrace opportunities for innovation and creativity. Knowledge workers require an environment where they can thrive and harness their creativity hence “employees who are fearful for their positions will not take risks and will seek to hide behind organizational bureaucracy,” (Hewlett 2006).

The time has come for transformational leadership in the public sector. This will not come easy as it would require a paradigm shift in the system. A complete overhaul of what exists. To drive change, there must be the paradigm shifters. The paradigm shifters are the risks takers, the bold ones who have the guts to change the rules. Having said that, we cannot all be paradigm shifters but some of us can be the paradigm pioneers. Paradigm pioneers put in the effort necessary to drive the new rules into reality. They take the risks and help the shifters drive the change efforts. The paradigm shifters will always have a tough time from the start because “the first time a paradigm is offered it most likely will be rejected because those practicing the prevailing paradigm can make a wonderful case for that rejection,” (Barker, 1993).

It is not surprising that the young generation of knowledge workers find it extremely difficult to fit in the old system. Very often we see younger persons who joined the public sector show signs of entropy very early in the game because the system is replete with persons who seek to control and protect their turf rather than liberate people to work in an environment where they can be free to innovate and create. One cannot abnegate the fact that a paradigm shift is needed in the public sector. There is a need for decentralize structures to allow for more participation and flattened hierarchies to facilitate information sharing between cross-functional teams, (Maden, 2002, p. 80). The old command and rule system will not survive in a knowledge economy.

Moreover, the public sector should do away with bureaucratic compensation plans that are not linked to performance results but should develop a new ethos to link knowledge workers’ compensation plans to its new vision, that of innovation of service offerings, cost reduction as a result of more efficient ways of doing things, citizen satisfaction based on performance results. Just as obtains in some private sector organisations, the government workers are to become the owners of the organisation. This will set them free to innovate, to create, learn, unlearn, and relearn to bring about the level of competiveness and efficiency required to move the sector successfully into the 21st century.

The public sector must take a systems approach to reconfigure itself to change its purpose and design to usher in a new vision, culture, strategy and structure if it wants to improve its ability to respond to the global challenges that confront it. Furthermore, an organisation should not attempt to correct structure until it is clear what the organisation’s strategy would be for now and into the future, (Burke, 2014). The green paper on Public Sector Reform endorses this point: “in this milieu the building of new or re-constituted systems and the decay and abandonment of irrelevant ones is an imperative,” (

Is it possible for the public sector to make the transition? It is not so far-fetched. It will only take a few paradigm shifters and pioneers to make it happen.

As is often said: those who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.

Editor’s note: The author of this article, Justine Charles, is a Leadership Trainer/Coach. 

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