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21st public service: shared vision needed for ‘softer’ skills

2014-12-04_10-36-45While it’s broadly agreed that in the future the work that public servants do will differ from that of the present, there is rather less agreement on what this work will actually comprise and the sorts of skills and competencies that will be required within the public service workforce.

In our previous piece in The Mandarin, we made the case that public services are not ready for change because there is at present a lack of voice from the public service concerning what future public services might look like. In our research we detected a lack of an active voice over what the future might look like and many articulated a concern that public services would become what others demand or allow.

From our research findings we construct one possible vision for the future of the public service workforce. We set this out here not to claim a definitive answer about what the future will look like, but as a way of generating debate around this important issue.

In thinking about the sorts of roles that will be important to public services in the future, one of the common debates relates to the balance of technical versus generalist skills in the public service. In our research we heard that there are too many generalists within current public services. Interestingly, within research carried out in the United Kingdom, the opposite was often argued and a focus on more technical and specialist skills have led to a dearth of some of the softer kinds of skills that are crucial when undergoing significant reform processes such as those presently associated with the austerity-driven changes of the UK public sector.

We argue that the debate about the technical/generalist balance is falsely constructed and detracts from the important issues at hand. We suggest that, instead, what we require is a set of roles that will meet the demands of the future, making it crucial that we have a shared vision of what future public services might look like — and importantly what it is that we are asking them to achieve.

In our report we set out four roles that we argue exist now within public services but will continue to become even more important in the future. These comprise:

  • Expert: exercising judgement and offering advice in a contested and complex policy space
  • Regulator: shaping and securing excellent performance and ensuring accountability for services delivered externally
  • Engager: authentic and mature engagement with citizens and users
  • Reticulist: working the networks beyond the organisation to improve public outcomes.

In addition to these four existing roles, we argue that a further four roles are emergent and will become more important in future years, namely:

  • Commissioner: redesign of services embracing a full set of activities from needs assessment to service delivery and evaluation
  • Curator: custodians of the values and cultures that support the public good
  • Foresighter: Long-term strategic thinking and analysis
  • Storyteller: constructing a coherent narrative and communicating it across different platforms and media to an array of different groups.

It’s important to note that we are not suggesting that these are not roles as understood in a traditional sense as being occupied by individuals. Public services will not stop advertising for doctors or teachers and instead seek to attract individuals with a remit around curating or storytelling. We need to consider these roles instead as the kinds of activities that public services will be involved with in the future and the need to think systematically about workforce planning with these kinds of roles in mind and not just those that comprise programs or services as we have traditionally tended to do.

In fulfilling these roles a broad range of different skills are associated with the 21st century public service. We have conceptualised them as comprising technical, human and conceptual skills operating across the spheres of design, delivery and relationships …

Skills frameworks for the future public service
Skills frameworks for the future public service

Many of these skills are already present in the public service workforce, although these are not necessarily planned for in a systematic way. Some attributes that will require further development relate to different ways of seeing the world than necessarily to specific technical or specialist skills. We highlights four areas for specific attention:

  • People management: focusing on creating cultures that can get the best from people and performance management systems that support high performance
  • International literacy: an appreciation of the interconnection between Australian public services and global influences and specific attention to the need for “Asia capability
  • Co-production: engaging with citizens and users to better design and deliver public services in a relationship that is more equal and reciprocal
  • Design — digital literacy: fully exploiting the potential of digital to support public service delivery.

We argue that many of the sorts of skills that will be important in the future will be “softer” in nature than the professionalised and technical skills that presently dominate recruitment and promotion processes. In some ways these represent a return to the more traditional skills of public administration. Indeed, we are not arguing here for a wholesale adoption of “the new” and recognise the importance of some of the foundational elements of the public service workforce. We concur with emerging thinking about the public service craft, which recognises the political and relational nature of the work of public servants.

Our findings also indicate that any change will not be sufficient without attention to cultural factors; the public service workforce will need to be supported by an organisational and institutional culture that fosters and rewards the roles and skills we have identified and which accords public service workers some agency in the process of re-imagining the service.

In our next and final piece we consider the recruitment, development and education implications inherent in creating the 21st century public service workforce.

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

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.