The 21st Century Public Servant

Posted on Tuesday 27th November 2012

In November 2012 an invited audience of senior public servants and academics joined a round table discussion of the role of public servants and public service in the 21st century.

21c-ps-cover-resizeHelen Dickinson, Director of the Public Service Academy at Birmingham University, introduces the subject and the full summary of the roundtable discussion is available below.

You can’t open a newspaper at the moment without reading something about the changes taking place within public services. From the reorganisation of the NHS to changes to council tax benefit and libraries facing closure, it is clear that the provision of services is going through the most radical shake-up in a generation.

Much of the focus has been on these sorts of controversial issues, but there are also fundamental changes happening in terms of public service careers. These changes have far-reaching implications for the career trajectories of public servants, and for the roles and skills they need to develop.

Many of these changes reflect the developments taking place in terms of the infrastructure of public services, which in recent years has changed significantly. Organisations are no longer large institutional hierarchies, but have become smaller and more diverse bodies. Around the country, new institutions are 'spinning out' from the public sector into social enterprises, and we are also seeing increased partnership with commercial, voluntary and community-sector organisations for the delivery of services.

In the past, careers often developed in a relatively simple way, with individuals starting out in junior posts within a public sector organisation and working their way up through the ranks. Today, it is likely that public servants will work for a range of different institutions and across a range of sectors during the course of their careers. Even when they do remain within a single organisation, they are likely to work across a large number of institutional and sectoral boundaries over the course of their daily practice. 

Given this changing context there are, of course, many areas that public servants will need to think about in terms of their own development. To this end, traditional education systems are not always as helpful as they might be, given that they continue to be designed around professional specialisms, mirroring the functional structures of traditional public service.

Although professional specialism and specialist knowledge will continue to be important, these need to be matched by the possession of a number of other, more generalised attributes and competencies. Here I list what Birmingham University’s Public Service Academy considers to be the top five:

The ability to be entrepreneurial will be essential, although is not something that has traditionally been seen as a significant asset within public services. This entrepreneurial behaviour is important not only in terms of ‘spinning out’ organisational functions, but also in terms of forging new links and bringing together different types of resources.

With the push to localise services, public servants will have to be attuned to their environment and understand local needs and the particulars of the context. Co-production will be more important than ever before and public servants will have to understand how to implement this with service users.

In order to navigate this system, interpersonal skills are crucial, such as the ability to facilitate and empathise. Political skills are also necessary – and not just for those with political aspirations.

Synthesis skills are also important in order to sort and analyse the vast array of information that public servants receive today. This information often comes from very different sources and judgements need to be made between these.

Finally, the ability to tell the story in an effective and plausible way is crucial. Being able to fashion and communicate options for the future, however tentative or experimental, will be critical in engaging service users, citizens and staff in redesigning services. This may involve not just traditional modes of communication but increasingly, better use of new and multimedia resources.

Twenty-first century public servant Summary of roundtable discussion (PDF 536KB) (27 November 2012)