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The skills public servants of the future will need

With the pace of technological change accelerating the provision and delivery of public services, it’s difficult to pinpoint specific skills an effective future public servant will need, says Neal Woolrich, director of HR advisory at consulting firm Gartner.

Woolrich prefers to take a more dynamic approach. He’s identified three broad skill sets that will likely be most useful: social intelligence to interact with others, creative intelligence for solving problems in innovative ways and critical thinking to evaluate complex scenarios.

As automation and artificial intelligence play a more significant role in delivering public services, these profoundly human skills will become increasingly prized, says Woolrich. He foresees a public servant’s value as being able to step in and address issues that arise from the deployment of new technologies.

Public servants well-versed in cybersecurity will also be vital to the sector’s effectiveness. “As more personal information goes online, it needs to be kept secure so that the public has the confidence to use those digital systems,” says Athena Ali, a career strategist and public sector job application specialist.

While ethics have always been an essential trait among public servants, the advent of remote and distributed working makes them even more so. That is because the individual has more autonomy and less direct supervision, which creates a greater potential for unethical conduct to go undetected.

Create a friction-free workplace

Woolrich believes the public sector needs to address current constraints that make it difficult to take a dynamic approach to sourcing the best talent for its workforce.

“One is the political environment,” he explains. “They operate in a fairly constrained environment and when hiring, they must meet a specific need of the government or the minister of the day.

“The public sector is also heavily unionised. Enterprise agreements offer little flexibility, and the way that roles are described and people are promoted and rewarded is quite regimented.”

Recruitment and promotion can often become a tick-box exercise, with candidates ruled out if they lack a particular skill, rather than displaying promising aptitudes. Striking the right balance is complex and there are no easy answers, acknowledges Ali.

“We need people who are resilient and adaptable because things are changing. And as we saw during the pandemic, we also need fearless leadership.

“There is a conundrum in the public sector because there are political sensitivities, and making mistakes is often frowned upon – you don’t want it on the front page of the newspapers. You want to encourage mistakes so that it’s possible to learn, but how big can those mistakes be?”

To become a high-performing organisation that attracts and retains the best problem solvers and innovators, it’s important to reduce or eliminate existing sources of friction in the workplace. Barriers that get in the way of making an impact in a role are counterproductive to retaining the brightest minds.

“We’ve seen over the last couple of years that people are willing to work hard but they’re not willing to work hard when things should be easy,” says Woolrich. “This has been a perennial challenge for the public service; the layering upon layer of bureaucracy.

“If people come into work and are banging their heads against the wall, they’re going to leave.”

Creating a desirable employee experience is also essential to retaining talent. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, flexibility was an area of competitive advantage for the public sector. Through necessity, the private sector has caught up with flexible work practices.

“Some state governments are shooting themselves in the foot by telling people to return to offices in the city to revitalise CBDs,” says Woolrich. “Why would you force people back when they’re saying loud and clear that they don’t want to?”

Ali agrees, saying that leadership positions in particular often lack enough flexibility to attract a talented and diverse pool of candidates.

“Jobs shares are uncommon, as are part-time opportunities,” she says. “The job advertisement will state that a candidate can ask for flexibility or different hours, but the problem is that most people don’t feel comfortable asking.”

Ali suggests that the most effective way to create a diverse and inclusive workforce is to reach out to such individuals before the recruitment phase begins. Discover preferred methods for applying for roles. If members of diverse groups are simply not applying, find out why.

Beyond perks and sideways shuffles

Woolrich says creating an appealing employee experience isn’t about offering staff every perk imaginable. It’s about designing work around the individual, not the organisation.

“Our research has found that employees want to be thought about as humans, not just employees,” he says. “They want a greater harmonisation between their work life and personal life, because these days for a lot of people, there’s no separation between work and personal life.”

Whether justified or not, the public sector has a reputation for moving underperformers sideways or ‘promoting them out’. Woolrich says that adopting the SMART performance management criteria can prevent such practices. (SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.)

“Rather than moving people sideways and handing off a problem to somebody else, be disciplined about doing something about it,” he says. “Coach the person to get up to speed using the SMART criteria. If they still aren’t aligned with strategic goals, have the difficult conversation about moving them out of the organisation.”

Managers also need to take a more proactive approach to performance management, says Ali.

“For some managers, performance management was something they had to tick off twice a year,” she says. “If you want to nip problems in the bud, you need to meet with people regularly – though it’s a fine line because you don’t want to appear like you are micromanaging staff.”

She says meetings should happen at least monthly. “It shouldn’t be twice a year or once a year because that makes it hard for staff to bring up conversations around pay or band-level increases.”

It can also take far longer than necessary to resolve any performance issues, as the gap between evaluations is too wide. Including positive messages along with negative feedback also do wonders for maintaining morale.

Building and retaining the public sector workforce

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