The 21st Century Public Servant

A sketch of a group of 4 meerkets
Like meercats, the 21st Century Public Servant doesn’t only focus on the current context but scans the horizon for broader issues and future challenges


The 21st Century Public Servant framework is being taken up as best practice nationally, transforming the blueprint of what a ‘good public servant’ is. 

Understanding what skills and behaviours are needed from the 21st Public Servant 

Public services are going through major changes in response to a range of issues such as cuts to budgets, increased localisation, greater demands for service user voice and control, increased public expectations and a mixed economy of welfare provision. The Covid-19 pandemic has created an extra set of challenges for public services and people working within them. 

The 21st Century Public Servant framework sets out eight key and overlapping roles that public servants will need to understand to be effective in the 21st Century, showing that a focus on technical skills doesn’t fit the reality of the role of a public servant and that more varied, softer skills are needed to fulfil these positions. 

The framework has led to a change in practice across local government in England. This includes the amendment of job descriptions and the redesigning of HR functions and other aspects of people management. The framework has also transformed leadership development within public service, with the concepts being embedded in multiple leadership programmes. In 2019 an independent impact survey was published. It found:

  • Around a quarter of all principal councils in the UK have experienced at least some benefit from the research with over two thirds of these councils experiencing significant benefit.
  • Half of all principal UK councils have at least some awareness of the research with over half of these councils having a good awareness.

The research and its resulting framework have now expanded to become systematically embedded in a national ‘Partners in Practice’ scheme. Developed with the Local Government Association, the scheme enables local authorities to assess how far their staff are displaying the characteristics of a 21st Century Public Servant, and to develop staff against this benchmark. The pilot has helped public servants within the two participating councils to engage better with communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

About us

In 2013 we conducted research funded by a Knowledge Exchange grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, in partnership with Birmingham City Council. This led to a report on the 21st Century Public Servant. Since then we have conducted a range of follow up pieces of research and engagement, including the 21st Century Councillor report, funded by the ESRC IAA and a Covid 19-related report, in association with North West Employers. We have partnered with the Local Government Association and the Society of Local Government Chief Executives to develop the Partners in Practice approach to support local authorities in applying the 21st Century Public Servant principles to their organisation. 

Key people

Why this research matters


The researchers have sustained engagement with dozens of organisations, communicating the framework through training and consultancy at over 140 invited events for local authority staff and councillors. Interest in the work was so high that the Local Government Association created a national steering group involving the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Public sector People Management Association to support dissemination of the approach. At a 21st Century Public Servant conference, run by the LGA, over 100 councils shared examples of how the framework has been used to change their practice.

The research team also created a card game to help local authorities to explore ideas around thinking and working differently. 


An infographic showing a storyteller, resource weaver, system architect, navigator, networker, broker, commissioner and municipal entrepreneur to show how a 21st public servant needs to be able to juggle different roles at the same timeThe 21st Century Public Servant balances lots of roles including storyteller, resource weaver, system architect, navigator, networker, broker, commissioner and municipal entrepreneur