Are we developing new skills in silos?

Catherine Mangan

Whilst researching the policy context for the future public servant I’ve been struck by how the different professions within local government are approaching the need to adapt their skills and approaches to the changing context in which they’re working.   Across the professions there appears to be acceptance and agreement that there is a need for a new type of public servant to respond to a new era of the more responsive state.  The responsive state can be described as one in which public services act as enablers not just providers, offering tailored and personalised services, delivering them where, when and in the form that the public want.  The big challenge therefore for public servants is to be able to adopt an ‘outside in standpoint’ – where they view their work from the citizens’ perspective.

The local government workforce know that their skills need to change.  A recent Hays Public service survey found that 65% of officers in local government believed that their skills were in demand now, but only 55% believed their skills would be in demand in the future.  This suggests that public servants know they need to learn new skills – but how developed is the thinking within the different professions working within local government?

With the radical changes that have been happening within social care over the past few years, this workforce are perhaps the most advanced in terms of thinking what type of new professional will be needed to meet the new context within which they are working.  The move to personalisation has challenged the profession to move towards more enabling and facilitating roles; creating new roles around brokerage and navigation rather than imposing their professional judgement.

Other professions are having similar conversations. Planners have identified four roles that they will need to play in the future:

  • Enabler – using their experience to support people to express their aspirations for a place and helping communities to work with developers and councils to achieve their vision.
  • Scenario planner – reconnecting cause and effect by making explicit the implications of action, and helping citizens understand the long-term risk and value of development.
  • Provocateur – the ‘trouble making’ planner, questioning people’s assumptions and offering alternative contexts and perspective to support innovation and change in the built and natural environment.
  • Judge – acting as independent arbitrators of global, national, local, individual and future values; disconnecting themselves from perceived vested interests, and reasserting their professional ethic of neutral expertise.

Housing professionals are moving towards more community focused roles; taking on roles of enablers, guardians of quality and acting as a hub for collaboration and a focus for a multi agency approach.

Regeneration professionals have been having a debate about creating a place-dedicated public servant, rather than a public health worker, a police employee or a local authority worker, who can collaborate with others and get involved in leading the regeneration of the local community.

Highways professionals are also being encouraged to consider the new skills and behaviours that they will need.  A profession that has traditionally been isolated from contact with the public is changing.  The former Minster for Transport Norman Baker MP told the profession that ‘People expect to be consulted, and managing customer expectations and communication tools is very important. Not just providing what people want, but doing it right first time (e.g., not having to come back to refix potholes because of a temporary initial fix’).  

These are just some of the debates taking place; the message I’ve taken from this is that we are in danger of remaining in professional silos while debating this issue and we need to bring people together to develop the 21st century public servant in a collaborative way.

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