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‘That’s not what firefighters are employed to do’: reimagining the public servant’s job

21st century public servant card game, c/o Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan. Photo: David Donaldson.

Unlike Australia, things don’t catch fire very often in the United Kingdom these days.

This has prompted fire services to rethink their functions, explains Catherine Needham, professor of public policy and management at the University of Birmingham.

“Their core business is shrinking,” she told The Mandarin during a brief stay in Melbourne.

But instead of just cutting, firefighting agencies have decided to use their ability to reach people to deliver public value.

“They’ve built up much more of a public health intervention role where they’re going into people’s homes to fix fire alarms. They also had a ‘sloppy slippers’ campaign about reducing falls among older people. So they’re thinking about how to use the good will the fire service has, which is generally better than the police.”

A great example is Glasgow Fire Service. Resources were being drained by regular false alarms at one of the city’s council estates, and the fireys realised the problem stemmed from a group of six young men with too much time on their hands. So they decided to find jobs for them.

“They had to do it under the radar, because it’s not the job of a firefighter. Their sense was that if you could just do that it would make a difference to a number of things, including crime levels,” says Needham.

“They could get into homes that the police couldn’t get into. There’s also something about the machoness of being a firefighter, more than a social worker maybe, that makes it easy to be a connector. So they worked with these particular people they targeted and got them onto apprenticeships. Eventually they heard the police were really bemused because the crime rate had hugely gone down in this estate and the police couldn’t understand where these people had disappeared to.”

But rethinking the role of the fire service requires a shift in how staff are hired and developed.

“If your recruitment posters are still people looking very heroic in all that emergency garb, are you getting to the right sorts of people in your organisation?” she asks.


Obviously there are many agencies where such creative thinking would never fly. ‘That’s not what firefighters are employed to do, so you have to work in a permissive enough organisation that you can go ‘right I’m going to do something completely different in my day job and see what happens'”, Needham explained.

Similar ideas are taking hold in agencies like the West Midlands Police, which is hiring and training a large number of “neighbourhood officers”, whose role is “much more about working with citizens, understanding issues and people’s whole lives, and not just being that arm of the law.” In some places local governments are working out how to hire people as generalists across police, fire and other services. The West Midlands Combined Authority is working on a framework for leadership development that would allow for formal sharing of experience and knowledge across the 18 local authorities that comprise its membership.

From resource weavers to story tellers

It’s not just the firefighters and police who are reassessing how they work.

“Public services of the future require a different set of workforce roles than in the past,” argue Needham and colleague Catherine Mangan in their 2014 report, The 21st century public servant

While core competencies around things like finance or contracting will remain important, increasingly communication, relational skills and more entrepreneurial ways of working will be required.

They argue that public sector agencies are over-reliant on hierarchy and markets and do not fully take into account the “ambiguity, complexity and messiness” that exists in the world.

It’s about public services being more flexible and adaptable — more human. This means more distributed and collaborative models of leadership, organisations that are fluid rather than siloed, taking generalist skills seriously, and a greater focus on locality. Many new jobs will fit under one of the following models: resource weaver, systems architect, navigator, networker, municipal entrepreneur, broker, commissioner and story teller. The report has prompted many discussions within the public sector about where their organisations are heading.

This shift also means people in more clearly defined, traditional roles will need to consider how they can incorporate some of these skills and approaches into their own work.

While the project focuses on local councils in the UK, many equivalent services are provided by state governments in Australia.

Of course, such big shifts inevitably provoke resistance.

“Helping professionals like lawyers, procurement and planners in particular understand some of these skills is actually really important,” says Mangan, director of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham.

“They are sometimes the blockers to this. The real win is when you start getting lawyers saying ‘I need to be out there acting as a networker or resource-weaver’, rather than very siloed thinking. A lot of the odd decision making in local government is driven by lawyers and procurement officers who work within a very constrained framework and can’t join the dots as to what the council is trying to achieve.”

One of the techniques Mangan and Needham use in consultations with public agencies is to encourage discussion and creative thinking about new possibilities, rather than shifting existing processes incrementally. They’ve even created a card game that presents different goals to prompt staff to suggest solutions. The ‘stop doing things that make people’s lives worse’ apparently tends to prompt the most discussion.

“Rather than the work being a new competency framework or embedded in a job description, which some organisations have been really keen to do, we’re keen to find ways to stimulate different kinds of conversations within policy teams and frontline staff about what would you need to do to create an organisation where you can be more human, be more generous, stop doing things that make people’s lives worse,” says Mangan.

“One of the issues we highlighted in the report is that people don’t have these spaces to talk to their peers, to do this sort of creative problem solving.”

Space and time for reflection and peer-to-peer learning are incredibly important, Mangan notes. “When you’re stretched, when you’re focusing on getting things done, that’s what you lose. So my plea would be to not lose those spaces and ensure they are valued. Reflective practice is absolutely what everyone should be doing.”

Austerity: burning platform or reform killer?

While the UK’s post-global financial crisis austerity regime has provided a burning platform for a few forward-thinking workplaces to reform themselves, it’s more often been damaging.

Unsurprisingly, with deep cuts to government budgets, many of the employees who had future-oriented skills left.

“When your organisation shrinks, you lose the people who are really good at networking because they’ve already got the opportunity for another job. So I think that kind of talent management has not been very well handled because they’ve had to cut quickly with an eye on the bottom line for this financial year.

“They’ve shrunk without thinking, ‘if we’re a smaller, more agile organisation, what’s the skill mix we want here, and are we keeping the people who are good at that?’ Often you’re keeping the people who’ve never worked outside local government and therefore struggle to think about another career,” says Needham.

Often the people who would have undertaken the planning for the future workforce are gone, too.

“They’ve definitely de-skilled their organisations,” Mangan explains. “They’ve reduced the organisational development capacity to nothing in most of them, and they’re now starting to realise that actually we haven’t got a talent pipeline.”

As for innovation, there just hasn’t been the budget to try new things and desperation to improve the immediate bottom line has meant plenty of good ideas that would have saved money were never tried because the savings would accrue to another agency.

It hasn’t helped that local government has a shortage of young people, who are often the drivers of technological change.

“The lack of take-up of technology is really worrying,” says Mangan.

“That’s manifested itself in a lack of keeping up, let alone preparing for the future. We’re so far behind what people expect from organisations now.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.