Researching the 21st Century Public Servant

A couple of years ago the University of Birmingham ran a Policy Commission into the Future of Local Public Services. This anticipated a series of future roles that people delivering public services would increasingly need to fulfil including storyteller, resource-weaver, systems architect and navigator. These roles weren’t necessarily new, but they were yet to be formally recognised, and people’s skills in these roles were rarely valued or developed. The report argued that recruitment and career development of the future workforce – the Twenty-First Century Public Servant – would have to change to recognise and support these new roles.

The Public Service Academy  at the University of Birmingham decided to take forward the challenge of developing some practical resources for better understanding and supporting the skills and values of the future workforce.  As a first stage the PSA held a roundtable with a range of interested people to start exploring the idea. Birmingham City Council was keen to be involved, at a time when it is rethinking its own workforce needs, and we are now working together on a Knowledge Exchange project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Some of the themes coming out of the project are shared with recent outputs from think tanks and research institutes. The RSA’s 2020 Public Services project, the Institute of Public Policy Research’s work on The Relational State, Nesta’s report on People Powered Heath, Demos’ work on Leading from the Front and Collaborate’s report on Leading Across the Sectors, all highlight a similar set of ideas. Public service careers are changing: either by choice or necessity people don’t stay in one sector for life and they need a set of portable skills that can equip them for a range of workplaces. Public services too are changing: there is a greater demand for whole person approaches in which generic skills, such as relationship-building and story-telling, are as important as the technical skills which have customarily been prized.

Our funded project isn’t large and so we are looking to establish synergies with other projects and programmes. As well as synthesising the existing literature, we will be interviewing 30 people for the project, some from Birmingham City Council and other West Midlands authorities and some from national organisations working to support the future public workforce. To supplement this work we are thinking creatively about how to draw on wider expertise. We will be working closely with Suffolk to give a comparative aspect to our work with Birmingham City Council. We are also going to be drawing on work that Helen is doing through the Melbourne School of Government on the challenges facing Australian public servants to draw out shared learning. We will be using social media to share ideas, disseminate resources and network with other people pursuing similar themes in research or practice.

The project runs from October 2013 to September 2014. Our interest in the themes will carry on well beyond that in future work hosted by the Public Service Academy. We’d be delighted if you could spread the message and join the debate on Twitter #21cPS

We are:

Catherine Needham, Reader in Public Management and Public Policy at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham @DrCNeedham

Catherine Mangan, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham @mangancatherine

Helen Dickinson, Associate Professor of Public Governance, Melbourne School of Government and School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne @DrHDickinson

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