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21st public service: changing education and recruitment

2014-12-04_10-36-45Much has been written about the idea that public services and the public service workforce of the future will look quite different from that of the present. In previous pieces in The Mandarin, we have argued that it is important that public services have a clear vision of what they might look like and set out our own version of this which puts far more of an emphasis of “softer” roles and skills.

Regardless of whether you buy into the version of the future that we set out in the report, if the roles and skills of future public servants are to look different, there are clearly implications in terms of education, development and recruitment practices. We argue more attention needs to be paid to workforce planning and management practices if we are to get the most out of the future public service workforce.

On the whole those we interviewed for this research were positive about the array of different opportunities that are available for public servants. There are a vast range of formal education and training opportunities that cover all manner of different learning and development opportunities, although some expressed concern that access to these often remains reliant on the quality of people management. Many described people management skills as inconsistent across public services and believe this has a large impact on what we are able to get from the public service workforce.

In terms of the balance between formal education, training and on-the-job training, many referred to the 70-20-10 principle: where 70% of learning is done on the job, 20% is through feedback and 10% formal learning. In practice most felt this was not the experience of every public servant. Gaps in skills and abilities tend to be filled by education and training opportunities outside of the organisational context and do not always afford the opportunity to practice the particular skill or capability they are aiming to improve.

Formal development approaches do not always offer the opportunity to apply learning in context, although as Professor Janine O’Flynn recently explained in The Mandarin, the Melbourne School of Government has carefully considered this issue in the design of education and development opportunities and many other education and training providers are also following suit.

“There is also a wealth of opportunities for development that are currently being missed.”

Many of the challenges experienced in terms of the skills and abilities of the public service workforce ultimately have their origin in a lack of workforce planning. Many of those we spoke to perceived that historically there was a far greater emphasis on public services guiding skill development, but this has fallen to individuals in recent years. An implication of this is that development is happening around the needs and interests of individuals, rather than in terms of the form and function of public services.

A priority, therefore, is not necessarily new or different types of workforce development opportunities per se, but instead a more systematic sense of what skills the public service needs to fulfil its roles and duties. Without a sense of what we are attempting to achieve in a more holistic way, it will be difficult to achieve this workforce planning and ensure we have the right skills to fulfil these different roles.

There is also a wealth of opportunities for development that are currently being missed. Individuals may be able to gain access to a full range of different developmental opportunities in-house by getting experience outside of their employing organisation. Greater use of secondment and project opportunities, coupled with appropriate people management, could provide the sort of development many currently find lacking.

There are, of course, a range of challenges associated with this, but greater mobility may be both not as difficult as we may imagine and a helpful way to improve development and retain high-performing staff in the long term. New South Wales has made some interesting moves through the Government Sector Employment Act of 2013, which sought to remove internal barriers to mobility and also create explicit opportunities for movement between the public sector and the other sectors.

While we detected a desire to recruit for different sorts of skills and abilities, often people were less clear about how to do this. It is far easier to recruit someone who has a professional qualification in a particular area than it is to recruit an individual who is good at collaboration or storytelling, for example. These are arguably less tangible qualities than a qualification and require a re-thinking of some aspects of the recruitment process.

“… many expressed a desire to go beyond traditional recruitment modes of interviews and assessment centres …”

While many expressed a desire to go beyond traditional recruitment modes of interviews and assessment centres, there was less consistency in terms of what these alternatives might look like. Interviewees spoke about the possibilities of using psychometric testing and other tools, although we did not come across any examples of where these were already in place in Australia (they are used fairly widely in Singapore).

One of the major challenges public services will face in the future is a tight fiscal climate. This poses some challenges for recruitment and attracting the brightest and best of the next generation, particularly in relation to some areas of highly specialised technical skills where the public service organisations may not be able to remunerate individuals at the same level as the private sector.

Again, one of the lessons from our research was that the public service has much to offer but does not always do a good job of selling these virtues or illustrating the strengths of the sector. Doing this in a more strategic way and speaking to the value set of individuals could be helpful when looking to attract the next generation.

Traditionally we have rewarded individuals in public services on their ability to be a particularly good professional with a defined set of skills, but in the future we may need to reward different sorts of aspects. The challenges of recruiting to roles may in practice relate less to the specifics of remuneration and more to how people expect to work and the ways in which they are rewarded.

Of course all of this is not without its challenges. But if we want to work differently this will involve thinking about recruitment and management practices in new ways. If we are to create the future public servant that we are in the process of collectively imagining we need to harness current resources so that we become greater than the sum of our parts.

You can find out more about this research project by reading the full report or accessing the project blog.

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.