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

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.

Alongside changes to government and the public sector we are also witnessing significant changes to the nature of work. In future our working lives will be longer and more varied. Many of our future public servants will not be interested in a 30-year career in the same organisation, but instead seek portfolio careers and/or careers that span a number of organisations, institutions and roles. If public services are to attract the brightest and the best then they will need to offer career paths and entry ways that fit with these ideas about the shape and nature of work.

Against this background, the Melbourne School of Government is currently leading a project examining the public service workforce of the future. This is part of a broader program of work that includes a project on “Asia capability” and a linked project in the United Kingdom. The 21st Century Public Servant project is underpinned by four major research questions:

  • What is the range of different roles of the 21st century public servant?
  • What are the competencies and skills that public servants require to achieve these roles?
  • What are the support and training requirements of these roles?
  • How might government better support and promote public service careers?

To date we have conducted around 30 interviews with senior representatives from different levels of government, peak bodies, think tanks and not-for-profit organisations to discuss what the 21st century public servant might look like and progress to achieving this.

Those we have spoken to diagnose the challenges that face public services and the need for change in similar ways. Most agree that we will see a change of role in public services away from being service deliverers to being enablers, commissioners, brokers and facilitators. These roles require a very different sort of skill set to those we have typically recruited for, developed and sought in promotion processes. They are also often very difficult to identify in a clear way; often people will tell us they can’t explain the constituent elements in detail but they know it when they see it. All of which suggests we need to give careful consideration to our recruitment processes to ensure we can recruit the best and most appropriate people for the job.

The need for these “softer skills”, such as collaboration, is not to say that professional and technical skills will not be important in the future — they patently will. Indeed, we have heard much during our research about the scourge of the generalist and a dearth of appropriate skills within the public services. However, just being good at a set of specific technical tasks will not be sufficient. Public servants will need literacies across a broad array of other domains.

So far our findings indicate that the level of thinking about these issues are limited to the margins of organisations and public service organisations are struggling particularly with issues relating to strategic workforce management. If we are to create the 21st century public servant it will require a much more concerted focus on workforce planning as part of a broader program of public service reform.

We are in the process of writing up our initial findings, but we’re still looking for contributions from individuals and organisations with an interest in this area. We are particularly interested in examples of good practice where individuals or organisations have undertaken work on a particular aspect of the future public service workforce. If you would like to get involved in this project please contact us on email or join the Twitter debate using #21cPS. We hope to report on findings from this project in future issues of the Mandarin.

More information on the 21st Century Public Servant project: visit the website

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.