Public leadership between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage

Tessa Coombes
Tessa Coombes

by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P conference

In the afternoon plenary session on the first day of the Policy & Politics conference, Prof. Dr. Erik-Hans Klijn, Erasmus University Rotterdam, explored the tension between front stage (world of media and politics) and back stage (world of complex networks) using his own work to take us through the tensions that exist and how public managers can cope with those tensions. He reminded us that – modern governance is more about managing processes than anything else and there are no easy answers to complex governance problems.

Governance networks (back stage) were described as being characterised by complexity; complexity of decision-making and of resource dependency, with many different actors involved in activity where it takes time and dedication to achieve good performance. In this sense, it is managerial effort that makes the difference with modern governance more about management than politics and where hard work is needed because there are no easy solutions. Whilst this may well be true, I think there are many politicians out there who may just disagree with the comment about management!

In the world of politics and media (front stage), complexity comes from interaction and activity, with politicians reacting daily to events and constant media attention which is both short term and immediate. It’s a different world dominated by media logic, where branding and image are increasingly ‘centre-stage’ and used more frequently because people can relate to them.

These different worlds, operating together, generate a number of tensions:

  • complex multi-faced problems and solutions versus simple communications
  • connective leadership versus personalised strong profile
  • long-term oriented dedication versus short-term visibility
  • trust building versus conflict framing

Public managers therefore face huge challenges to combine ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage, where there is more focus on emotions, more use of branding and more network management. Erik-Hans concluded by emphasising that these tensions will remain and potentially increase, because the tendencies that fuel them will remain in place.

One of the interesting points I’ll take away from the discussion is definitely the one about branding, and how important this become in our society, but with a reminder that perhaps this should relate not just to ‘selling’ but also to identity, value processes and commitment.

Tessa Coombes has recently completed the MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University, is a former Bristol City Councillor and regularly blogs about policy, politics, and place.

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