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The 21st public service: are we ready for the change needed?

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It has been widely argued that we are at the frontier of significant changes to the shape and nature of public services. Alongside this we are also witnessing major changes in the organisation of work. Taken together these developments could transform the activities the public service workforce undertakes and the way in which it operates.

As we have previously argued in The Mandarin, whilst the diagnosis of the challenges that public services face is generally shared, there is little detail about what the future public service workforce might look like. For some time it has been suggested that in the future the public service workforce will be smaller and focused primarily on policy development. This is a significant shift from the current context where most public servants are in service delivery related roles.

This presents difficulties to workforce planners in terms of identifying and securing the right skill sets. A further challenge that results from this shift is how public service workers will demonstrate their distinctiveness in the future and what their claims to legitimacy will be. With a change in function, public servants will find themselves needing to distinguish their work from that of others in different sorts of ways.

Traditionally, many of those who work in public services are attracted by the idea of making a difference and having an impact, whereas once they may have been, at least in part, attracted by the stability that these sorts of roles offer. Stability is likely to be less relevant in the future (and less available), but the possibility of making a difference is likely to remain a powerful attractor, and demonstrating how this can be achieved in policy settings where influence comes as much from outside the public service as inside will be challenging.

In our report — Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce — we argue that current public servants need to make a decision about whether they are an active contributor to this process or adopt a more passive position, whereby they simply serve to implement visions of change decided by others. Undertaking this work we were struck by the extent to which public servants manifest a lack of agency in the process of change, and a sense that they are unable to forge the sorts of changes that they want or believe are needed.

While we detected a clear and collective sense of what the future would likely look like, we did not detect similar conviction from public servants that they would be active players in reform. Rather, we detected a concern that public services would become what others demand or allow.

“… we did not detect similar conviction from public servants that they would be active players in reform.”

If this is to be an active involvement then there is an urgent need to contribute to setting out a view public services of the future and a program of change to achieve this, including change to support the development of a new public service workforce. Many participants in our research were concerned that we have a clear sense of what it is precisely that public services are aiming to achieve and what success might look like if realised.

Without a clear sense of what public services are aiming to achieve then it is difficult to strategically plan a workforce around this. If form follows function then without clarity about the latter it is difficult to design the former in an effective way.

If, as seems likely from the evidence of our research, change in public services is more likely to be incremental rather than radical, then realising the public service workforce of the future may require a series of incremental changes that together bring about the change that is needed. Working in this way requires very close attention to the smaller, incremental changes that are likely to take effect but are also likely to make a contribution to the broader agenda for workforce change.

Consequently, it is essential that a vision for the future and a program for change are established now.

What our research suggests is that we do not get the most that we might out of the public service workforce because of a lack in terms of strategic workforce planning. This is found to be wanting in many areas of public services where staffing is determined by programs and services and not thinking holistically about the needs of the organisation. This traditional approach limits the roles that public servants take on and inhibits flexibility and mobility.

The development of skills and availability of training and education opportunities is not always as closely tied to people and performance management as it might be. This needs careful consideration for the future, particularly where we may have a context in which the next generations expect different things in terms of the workforce and respect different forms of levers. Recruiting the future generations may involve more than simply thinking about the types of benefit packages that are made available but will also involve appealing to a value base and interest in making a difference.

In attracting new recruits, the public service has a challenge in telling a positive narrative about itself, the breadth of different opportunities available and the chance to make a difference.

In our next article we will set out our vision of what the future public service workforce might look like and the roles and skills that may comprise this.

More at The Mandarin: Creating the 21st century public servant: emerging from an identity crisis

Author Bio

Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan

Helen Dickinson is an associate professor in public governance at the University of Melbourne. Helen Sullivan is professor and director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne and sits on The Mandarin's editorial advisory board.