From network managers to pathfinders: the future of public service skills

By David Donaldson

Friday October 6, 2017

Government is being forced to adapt as citizens’ expectations change, technology advances and some of the traditional levers of power dissolve.

New problems call for new capabilities. So what skills will be required to keep government humming along and individual public servants in gainful employment? A recently released report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has attempted to wrap its hands around this rather slippery issue.

The key challenges are well-known but have complex effects. There is the increasing prominence of wicked, multi-dimensional problems like climate change and family violence. Society is more pluralistic and interconnected, with citizens who are able and willing to scrutinise government. And the boundaries of the public sector are blurring as contractors play a larger role in the delivery of vital services, leading to more open and networked governance.

To get a handle on the question, the OECD considered the impact these shifts will have on what it sees as the four main skill “bundles” involved in creating public value.

Policy advisory skills

Diversity and openness will be the biggest drivers of change in this field, the OECD thinks.

Government needs to recognise and work with the increasingly diverse range of voices in society while remaining savvy about the interests of different groups.

“While the policy advisory skills of the civil service remain essential, they have to operate in a more dynamic and open environment, where civil servants are plugged in to broader policy communities and networks in order to understand the most recent research and arguments being developed, where they come from, and the political agendas of those responsible for their development,” the report argues.

The ability to listen, influence and integrate diverse voices into the policy making process will be important.

“Pluralistic societies interpret policy situations differently and demand that problem definition no longer be undertaken in a closed environment by experts,” the report notes. The assumptions of traditional tools such as cost benefit analyses do not reflect the values of some sectors of the community, who may prioritise less tangible concepts, such as quality of life and the environment, over financial concerns. While this does not render them invalid, such difference should be acknowledged and addressed where appropriate.

Increased openness presents lots of opportunities, even if it doesn’t always look that way. Citizens’ complaints and feedback can alert public servants to issues requiring redress. Data is more accessible and interlinked than ever before, suggesting data science, network analysis, social networking and social media, crowdsourcing and foresight techniques, as well as more traditional prediction and analysis methods will all be in demand.

Historical nous is important. Having a knowledge of what has been tried in the past is vital to avoid repeating mistakes, but should be balanced against the local context and advances in technology and practice.

The increasing speed with which government now occurs is crunching the time available to develop policy. This requires public servants to have a well-developed sense of timing and the ability to communicate ideas to politicians quickly and effectively, such as using “more compelling visual presentations and storytelling”, the OECD thinks.

Engagement and service delivery skills

As government offers more services and requires welfare recipients to jump through more hoops, public purpose employees on the frontline “are required not only to provide services, but help citizens find their way through these complex service systems to get the help and service they need,” the report notes.

“This means client-facing public employees need to be more than transactional, and also need to act as guides or pathfinders to help citizens navigate complex webs of services, entitlements, benefits and eligibility requirements.”

This complexity means public servants — or those contracted to deliver services on behalf of government — need high-level communication skills, empathy and reflection, as well as a level of discretion and empowerment to resolve problems. Without these, there is a risk customers may decide the person sitting in front of them is unable or unwilling to help, damaging trust in government.

A change of mindset may be necessary: it is more difficult to find and keep people with these skills and knowledge when delivery is considered an entry-level or outsourceable function.

The ability to engage users and develop effective user-centred services is becoming more important. “This may be as simple as undertaking user research at different stages (to identify needs and test prototypes, alpha, beta and live versions) through deep participatory exercises such as co-production of a policy or service which aims to foster a sense of joint ownership between officials and users,” says the OECD.

“Specific skills in this regard involve facilitation and design skills, and online consultation and engagement skills.”

Commissioning skills

The growth of outsourcing in the past few decades has created a need for public servants who have the skills to design, negotiate, manage and evaluate government’s contracts with other sectors. Yet these capabilities “go far beyond most countries’ expectations of traditional procurement agents,” the report points out.

The think tank lists the key abilities required by public sector contract managers:

  • They must have strong substantive backgrounds so they can understand the issues that bubble up from the contractors;
  • They must be quick students in complex areas;
  • They must be adept negotiators;
  • They must be good financial managers, as the flow of money is typically the strongest control over programmatic results;
  • They must be good auditors to ensure money is going where it is supposed to;
  • They must be able to evaluate the complex relationships between government and its contractors to ensure value is being gained;
  • In short, they must be experts in steering complex processes.

Knowledge about how companies and markets work can be difficult to find among career bureaucrats. It doesn’t help that, like delivery, these skills are often not held in high regard in a world where policy sits at the top of the heap. Public servants will need to bone up on their ability to work with the private and third sectors effectively if government is to obtain the public value these relationships are supposed to provide.

Network management skills

Somewhere between direct engagement with citizens and working through contractual relationships sits another group of skills receiving increased attention: collaboration and adaptive management through networks to address common problems.

“Collaborative partnerships” can tap into a wider body of knowledge, perspective and technology than any one organisation, and might make it easier to find consensus on definitions and solutions to problems. While practices such as systems engineering, systems innovation, systems thinking and design thinking are not entirely new, their application in the public sector is relatively recent and under-studied.

Even without being an expert within one of these fields, public servants can consider their network management capacity by having a more precise understanding how existing policy systems work, who the stakeholders are, possible causal relationships within the system and the types of uncertainty the system faces.

“Managing networks requires a mix of information and relational skills,” and ultimately depends on trust between participants, the OECD argues.

“Key skills in the literature on networked governance include trust building, systems thinking, high-level interpersonal skills (coaching, mediation, negotiation, facilitation, diplomacy), building consensus and joint problem solving, brokerage and political entrepreneurship, risk analysis, project management, flexibility and adaptability, bridge-building, feedback loops, communication skills, and creative problem solving.

“This is the realm of boundary spanners and implies a very different approach to leadership and solutions development.”

Moving away from a top-down approach to leadership and a compliance approach to management, and towards dispersed responsibility and values-based management, can also help public servants work more effectively with collaborative partners.

Neither homogenous nor interchangeable

To translate these ideas into action human resources departments should revisit how they attract and retain people.

“Building this civil service requires a new look at way people are managed; one that recognises that public employees are neither homogenous nor mutually interchangeable. This suggests the need to develop employment policies and frameworks that are not only driven by quantitative factors (numbers and cost), but that are driven by individual qualities (skills and expertise),” the OECD argues.

“Supporting a learning culture in the civil service will ensure that skills are up to date allowing the workforce to keep up with the fast-changing nature of work. This means investing in learning opportunities, developing career paths, and reinforcing managers’ responsibility to develop their employees.

“… The capacity and capability of the civil service workforce is fundamental to the success of all public policy and reform.”

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