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How place-based leadership can deliver innovative policy

20 May 2018

News and media


paper cut out people holding hands

Good leaders are driven by a clear purpose, work collaboratively and instinctively understand the importance of place, says leadership expert Professor Brad Jackson.

This kind of leadership is becoming more important across the public sector, as it moves away from established hierarchical structures to work more closely with communities and other organisations.

“A focus on place, rather than organisational structures, can help public services break out of their silos and develop creative solutions to local issues,” he said.

Professor Jackson, director of Griffith University’s Policy Innovation Hub in Brisbane, is a specialist in place-based leadership, and will be a co-convenor of ANZSOG’s first annual Deputies Forum on the Gold Coast in July, 2018.

While ANZSOG has held successful annual CEOs Forums for more than a decade, the Deputies Forum is a recognition that deputy CEOs, deputy secretaries and deputy director-generals are increasingly managing large functional areas, developing policy and expected to provide whole-of-organisation leadership.

“Deputy CEOs are already in the hot seat, and that seat has got hotter in recent years,” Professor Jackson said.

“They are having to engage more with ministers and stakeholders. They are becoming exposed to these challenges much earlier in their careers and need to learn to handle them.

“Part of this new leadership role is to be more open, to work more closely with communities and treat media as a stakeholder that provides opportunities as well as threats. The more entrenched and inward-looking public services get, the more that can become a downward spiral.”

Learning to think about place

Professor Jackson says that while ‘space’ is the way the physical environment links and flows together, ‘place’ is the way that communities interact with and give meaning to the spaces they inhabit and work in.

“Learning to think in terms of place, not in terms of structures or hierarchies is something that is part of being a leader in the modern public service,” he said.

“The public sector is increasingly working with private and not-for-profit groups to deliver change, and leadership is more about how do we create a common direction and purpose? Focus on place is critical for achieving this.”

Professor Jackson praised the private sector’s focus on ‘place’.

”They recognise they need to listen to the grassroots to help their bottom line; the public sector still tends to be more centralised.

“There is often a huge split between [public sector] policy teams and management teams – but this relationship should be a dynamic and interdependent, especially when you organise more around issues or place.

“When you do this, there is a chance to be more fluid and have more organic policy formulation, where you use continual feeding back to create a culture of experiment and adaptability, using what is happening at the bottom, to influence the top.”

Data-driven local solutions 

The Deputies Forum will be held on Queensland’s Gold Coast, which Professor Jackson describes as a rich resource for participants.

“People think they know the Gold Coast, but we want them to have a second, third and fourth look over the three-and-a-half days. There is a lot of diversity with some areas doing well economically and some poorer areas,” he said.

The forum will also spend time in Logan City, south of Brisbane, where Griffith University runs the Regional Innovative Data Lab (RIDL), which brings together business, government, NGOs, academics and Indigenous groups, as part of the “Logan Together” project.

Logan is a disadvantaged community south of Brisbane, and the goal of the project is to address long-standing social problems, with a focus on children aged under-8, schools and early childhood interventions.

Professor Jackson said the visit was an opportunity to view place-based leadership in action, as well as highlight the potential for ‘big data’ analytics to drive more finely-grained public policy. 

“The growth in the amount of data being collected provides a timely opportunity to do things at a more local level. The quality of data is important, but it is only as good as the questions that public purpose organisations are asking, and then only as good as what can be implemented at the local level,” he said.

Leading with a purpose

Professor Jackson said that most leadership theory was too focused on individuals and their personality and authority, and not on the broader outcomes.

“Leadership is a process, and one that must be purpose-driven. Often a focus on place can also bring our collective purpose into focus,” he said.

“I’m a big believer in the importance of getting out of the office. I’d say that one-hour out of the office is worth two hours in it. Being in a place and seeing things, even at a mundane level can change your perspective and be a real influence on policy.”

He said that public servants needed to expand their understanding of leadership, and recognise that it was becoming more about an outward focus with an emphasis on networking and collaboration. 

“It’s about working out how the hell we get people from different cultures, backgrounds and organisations to create something in common and sustain it for the long-term.

“How well you lead internally is not unimportant, but it’s not the whole of leadership, and in some cases it can undermine what is trying to be achieved more broadly.”

Professor Jackson said public sector leaders needed to be more open to working with the communities they served, and recognising the importance of partnerships.

Shifting sectors is the future

Public servants are increasingly working with the private and not-for-profit sectors to deliver services, and Professor Jackson said their roles would become more collaborative and more fluid in the future.

“There will be a lot more movement between the public, private and not-for-profit worlds, not just in the contracting of services, but in people shifting a lot more between them, and collaborations will be project-based.

“I encourage people to become sector-savvy and to shift across from public to private to community sectors as part of their career.” 

Professor Jackson says that public servants should not wait to reach a certain level before trying to show leadership.

“Leadership is something that can be pursued right through an organisation.  My question is what are you doing at your level? Do you challenge constructively? Do you take risks? Do you follow when you need to?”

ANZSOG’s inaugural Deputies Forum will be held on 15-18 July on the Gold Coast, Queensland.