November, 12 2019   |   Jean Hartley, Alessandro Sancino, Mark Bennister & Sandra L. Resodihardjo

Public leaders need to have (and use!) political astuteness, if they want to create public value. This is the conclusion from our recently published special issue (in the academic journal Public Administration) on how public leaders can achieve public value (Hartley et al. 2019b). The contributions to the special issue amplify the analysis that political astuteness is a necessary requirement in the creation of public value. Here we provide a brief summary of the findings by considering the concepts of public leadership and public value before explaining how political astuteness acts as a critical link between these two concepts, enabling public leaders to create public value.

Traditionally notions of public leaders evoke images of strong politicians or senior managers striving for reform pretty much on their own. That interpretation, however, is outdated. Recent trends in public administration have shifted the focus from individual public leaders to the value of public leadership. As such public leadership can be exhibited by anyone who influences the public sphere, not just by people who hold traditional positions of power and authority within or over public organizations. Public leadership can be expressed by actors and groups inside or outside of government. Public leadership can be exhibited, as shown in the special issue, by individuals and teams in public organizations (Trivellato et al. 2019), and also in private corporations (Andrews 2019), social groups and citizens (Brown and Head 2019; Hartley et al. 2019a), and civil society organizations (Ayres 2019; Teasdale and Dey 2019).

What these actors have in common is that they display public leadership in a world which is becoming increasingly influenced by polycentric governance. The complex and wicked problems that societies face mean that governments can no longer rely solely on traditional forms of public administration to deal with these problems (Rittel and Weber 1973; Ansell and Torfing 2016; Bryson et al. 2017). Consequently, a large variety of non-traditional governance structures and processes have emerged, including for example networks, partnerships, alliances, self-governance, and co-production. Public leadership in these governance structures is about “mobilising individuals, organisations and networks to formulate and/or enact purposes, values and actions which aim or claim to create valued outcomes for the public sphere” (Hartley 2018, p. 203).

If actors are able to exercise public leadership to contribute to the public sphere, then these actors are (co)creating outcomes which may create public value. It is important to note, however, that while some citizens might perceive a new policy as beneficial to them and society, other citizens might perceive said policy as limiting to their own interests. In other words, as Benington (2011) explains, it is important to conceptualize public value as having two different dimensions: what adds value to the public sphere and what is valued by the public—while recognizing that, given the existence of multiple publics, what constitutes public value might be a contested issue (Moore 1995; Benington 2015; Hartley et al. 2019a).

So how can public leadership contribute to the creation of public value? Through the usage of political astuteness. Since actors, groups, and organizations can have different interests (which may sometimes compete), public leadership can result in the creation of public value where actors are able to accurately assess not only how others perceive an issue and what their interests are, but also what is needed to bring about alignment of interests and coalitions that support this public value. Without this set of capabilities (skills, knowledge, judgment and abilities), public leadership is less likely to be able to influence constructive outcomes where diverse interests are at play (Hartley et al. 2015).


Leadership with political astuteness involves five interrelated dimensions, as noted in earlier empirical work by Hartley et al. (2015). These are:

  1. Personal skills
  2. Interpersonal skills
  3. Reading people and situations
  4. Building alignment and alliances
  5. Strategic direction and scanning


Each dimension consists of various activities/skills and behaviors. Being proactive, for instance, is an important personal skill for being politically astute (Hartley et al. 2015).

Finally, Ayres’ (2019) contribution to political astuteness in the special issue emphasizes that being politically astute includes being aware of when public leadership exerted behind the scenes in informal settings is likely to cross into being undemocratic. Flexibility and informality can be assets in the decision-making process, but at some point this can go too far, making it unattractive to be transparent about the decision-making process and thus who can be held accountable for the decisions made. Being aware of where this tipping point lies (and acting upon it!) will become even more important in years to come as new governance structures are created to satisfy our need for creative and flexible solutions in an ever more complex world.



Jean Hartley is a professor at The Open University Business School, Milton Keynes, UK and Academic Director of the university’s Centre for Policing Research and Learning. Her work focuses on public leadership and management and public services innovation. Alessandro Sancino is Director of the Citizenship & Governance Strategic Research Area and senior lecturer in management at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Mark Bennister is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK. His recent research focuses on the role of the speaker in the House of Commons. Sandra L. Resodihardjo is assistant professor in public administration at the Institute for Management Research, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands. She recently published a book on blame games titled Crises, Inquiries and the Politics of Blame.



Andrews, L. (2019). Public administration, public leadership and the construction of public value in the age of the algorithm and ‘big data’. Public Administration, 97(2), 296–310.

Ansell, C., & Torfing, J. (2016). Handbook on Theories of Governance. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 

Ayres, S. (2019). How can network leaders promote public value through soft metagovernance? Public Administration, 97(2), 279–295.

Benington, J. (2011). From private choice to public value? In J. Benington & M. Moore (Eds.), Public Value: Theory and Practice (pp. 31–51). Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Benington, J. (2015). Public value as a contested democratic practice. In J. M. Bryson, B. C. Crosby, & L. Bloomberg (Eds.), Creating Public Value in Practice: Advancing the Common Good in a Multi-sector, Shared-power, No-one-wholly-in-charge World (pp. 29–48). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor and Francis Group.

Brown, P.R., & Head, B.W. (2019). Navigating tensions in co-production: A missing link in leadership for public value. Public Administration, 97(2), 250–263.

Bryson, J., Sancino, A., Benington, J., & Sørensen, E. (2017). Towards a multi-actor theory of public value co-creation. Public Management Review, 19(5), 640–654.

Hartley, J. (2018). Ten propositions about public leadership. International Journal of Public Leadership, 14(4), 202–217.

Hartley, J., Alford, J., Hughes, O., & Yates, S. (2015). Public value and political astuteness in the work of public managers: The art of the possible. Public Administration, 93(1), 195–211.

Hartley, J., Parker, S., & Beashel, J. (2019a). Leading and recognizing public value. Public Administration, 97(2), 264–278.

Hartley, J., Sancino, A., Bennister, M., & Resodihardjo, S.L. (2019b). Leadership for public value: Political astuteness as a conceptual link. Public Administration, 97(2), 239–249.

Moore, M. H. (1995). Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rittel, H.W.J., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Teasdale, S., & Dey, P. (2019). Neoliberal governing through social enterprise: Exploring the neglected roles of deviance and ignorance in public value creation. Public Administration, 97(2), 325–338.Trivellato, B., Mariani, L., Martini, M., & Cavenago, D. (2019). Leading knowledge mobilization for public value: The case of the congestion charge zone (Area C) in Milan. Public Administration, 97(2), 311–324.

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