Creating the 21st century public servant: emerging from identity crisis

The sector has changed, but have public servants changed with it? There’s new skills to learn as a mandarin of the 21st century …

It might seem like the one constant in government is change, but much of what has been written about government and public services in recent times suggests we are on the precipice of a major transformation. The pressures are well rehearsed and include changing demographics, increasing citizen expectations, the need to do more with less, the rise of new technologies and digital media. Taken together these mean that governments will need to undergo significant changes — not only in what they do but also in how they operate.

Discussions of this transformation often note that there will be significant implications for the public service workforce. But beyond some broad suggestions that public servants will need to become more adept at collaboration, co-production, develop better commercial skills and embrace the technological revolution, there is a striking lack of detail about the roles of the future workforce and the skills that it will require.

Added to this it might be fair to suggest that Australian public services have undergone a bit of an identity crisis in recent times. The rise of ministerial offices, minority parties, 24/7 news channels and social media have significantly changed the governance environment. Yet, the public sector has remained rather traditional in nature.

In introducing The Mandarin, Tom Burton questioned whether the Australian public service is as agile and relevant as it might be and whether it is ready to “lead Australia into potentially its most dynamic era”? The implication is that there is an urgent need to pay attention to the changing roles of public servants and their associated support and development needs if we are to realise the transformation outlined in the literature and promised by politicians on a daily basis.

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