Are you a 21st century-proof public manager?


Volatility and complexity will play an increasing role in the public sector manager’s work, argues Associate Professor Zeger van der Wal. He outlines the five attributes public servants will need.

Imagine being a public manager in Australia today. Global events like Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and the assertive rise of Asian powers are fundamentally changing your international operating environment. At home, ever more assertive stakeholders scrutinise your performance impatiently and sometimes unrealistically, demanding public agencies to deliver value for money while demanding involvement in policymaking without sharing accountability burdens. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Increasingly, you operate in a VUCA world, characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, as the popular managerial acronym goes. The VUCA world offers many challenges but at the same time exciting opportunities for achieving unprecedented levels of public service excellence, together with citizens and vanguards of change from other sectors. But how do you turn various new challenges into opportunities for innovation and excellence?

Consultants, think tanks, and academics alike have begun to address this question. A recent OECD report on 21st century skills featured on The Mandarin recently. Still, many attempts to sketch the future of public management stay fairly abstract and macro, and seem far removed from your daily struggles. In my recent textbook for senior participants in graduate and executive programs, The 21st Century Public Manager, I translate global macrotrends and microtrends to your everyday working environment, based on decades of research evidence and over 100 best practices from across the world. Ultimately, I argue 21st century-proof managers will need to be:

  1. Smart, savvy, and astute: you will not thrive in a VUCA world because of seniority, or because you were designated as important or powerful in the past. Commanding respect and authority because your business card says director won’t cut it. You will only continue to gain such respect and authority by being smart — at least as smart as your various counterparts. You must be savvy in leveraging opportunities and technologies to outperform competitors and convince masters. You must also be astute in strategically securing support and funding from various authorising environments. Rather than using either hard power or soft power skills, 21st century managers need to use “smart power”, as former Harvard Dean Joseph Nye argues, combining IQ, EQ, and CQ (contextual intelligence).
  2. Entrepreneurial while maintaining a strong public service ethos: you will have to be entrepreneurial, to some extent even commercial, in seeking out opportunities and starting ventures across sectors. But you’ll have to walk a fine line. You cannot become a full-blooded entrepreneur chasing a limited group of profitable or ‘easy’ clients (we see on a daily basis what kind of trouble that will put you into). Instead, you must smartly target certain segments of stakeholders in the early stages of new projects, pilots, and idea generation without losing sight of accessibility to all segments of society later. You need to differentiate between stakeholders to optimally achieve various objectives, and emulate sophisticated marketing, survey, and sales techniques from your private sector counterparts to utilise different platforms: to reach the higher educated, policy-savvy citizens as well as (and perhaps even more so) the disgruntled, lower-educated ones.
  3. Collaborative and connected, yet authoritative in content and style: you know you won’t get anything done by being hierarchical, siloed, protectionist, and monopolistic. You have to be able to ‘let go’: to invite, enable and allow others to participate, increasingly also layman citizens. At the same time however, authority, responsibility, and accountability for addressing social issues will largely remain with you and your political masters. You can only successfully fulfil your obligations and mandates if you are granted informal (not just functional) authority and legitimacy by your various partners. These have to be continuously earned through excellent performance, enabling and energising leadership, and a sufficient display of expertise and content knowledge.
  4. Active anticipators of what matters now as well as in the future(s): you must simultaneously manage the ‘political scoring logic’ in an era of never-ending news cycles while building multiple long-term scenarios and analytical models to anticipate VUCA events. You have to convincingly operate on various stages, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. 21st century public managers will find ways to connect both logics and timelines, by showing political masters and other key stakeholders how investing in long-term planning and anticipation will also help them to do better in the now, and to address and account for crises and scandals. This means making the foresight process accessible, meaningful, and inclusive, and tap into the opportunities that technology and crowd sourcing provide. You recognise and appreciate the differences between amateur and expert contributions and communicate transparently about such differences to various stakeholders.
  5. Generalist specialists who never stop learning: to operate effectively in the years to come, you need both generic and specialist skills and competencies, as well as being keen to rapidly and frequently switch between roles, sectors, projects, networks, and issues. Mastering such a wide and dynamic range of skills requires a mindset attuned to lifelong learning. This learning can take place through frequent executive courses (managerial and technical), internships, exchanges, and cross-sectoral job rotation. ‘Generalist specialists’ realise that their initial training will only partly determine where they will end up and how their careers will unfold. You may well start out as a specialist while acquiring management and leadership skills through executive training during your career, or get a generalist degree that prepares you for a wide range of roles and then acquire technical skills through on-the-job modules.

How do agencies recruit, groom, and develop such managers? The design of training and management development programs for 21st century public managers need to take into account that a decade from now, typical public service careers will look dramatically different from today. Sector switching and job switching will increase, with five years in one organisation considered a lifetime to younger generations. While retaining and incentivising high-potentials, organisations will need to continuously invest just as much, or maybe even more, in senior employees who have to stay employed into their late sixties, while staying motivated to walk the extra mile. Of particular importance here are recent private sector successes in the area of reverse mentoring, where 25 year olds teach 55 year olds how to launch policy campaigns on Twitter, while the latter teach the youngsters how to deal with opportunistic politicians and balance family life with a career. Studies show both generations feel more motivated and useful as a result.

Thus, to produce maximal return on investment, training and development programs need to smartly target junior as well as senior high-potentials. This is even more important as newer generations consider investment in their future-readiness and career development through training programs an increasingly important incentive for performing well and committing to their employer — in fact, for staying around at all. Trainee programs and “candidacy training” are important, but organisations must also become more inventive in retaining high-potentials. Experience in various countries shows that many of these individuals leave within their first few years on the job for better opportunities elsewhere, or because of disappointment with a system that is not as ‘new’ and ‘cool’ as it brands itself. The recent ‘paleo pear’ video embarrassment shows we still have some way to go.

Dr Zeger van der Wal is associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and author of The 21st Century Public Manager. He travels the world giving keynotes and workshops about public management in the 21st century. Zeger is a E-MPA ANZSOG Faculty Member, and will be visiting Canberra, Wellington, and Auckland in November 2017.

  • Leanne Wakeling

    Great article. Insightful of the forth coming, or in process changes in leadership skills that are critical for advancement in the 21st Century. Notably even the ADF are appreciating that your identified skills are gaining priority for operating in the strategic environment for their senior leaders. So it isn’t only civilian public sector leaders that aspire to senior leadership that are on notice about the skills that are becoming the priority for success in the environment through 2020 and beyond.

    • Zeger van der Wal

      Thanks and good point Leanne. Some of these skills most certainly apply to military management and leadership as well, with the exception being that increased horizontalism, stakeholder voice, and leadership/authority turbulence will impact less so (or at least, at a slower pace) than civilian sectors, simply because of the command and control hierarchical structure. One interesting question is whether the challenges and skills identified in the book do also apply to the private and non profit sectors. Many readers seem to think so. Will there be more sectoral convergence in the 21st century?