The 21st century public servant – 21stC capabilities

Maria Katsonis, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria
Helen Sullivan, Melbourne School of Government

In 2013 the Melbourne School of Government and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet began collaborating on a project to explore the roles, skills and characteristics of the 21st century public servant.

This blog describes the 21stC capabilities we identified through extensive consultations with colleagues within the Victorian Public Service (VPS) and with innovative thinkers and experienced analysts outside the VPS.

A number of capabilities were identified during the consultations. Some were distinctly new, identified in response to the changing public service environment. Others, such as outsourcing and contract management are capabilities associated with the 20th and possibly even the 19th century, that require better execution or additional capacity.

Five priority capabilities emerged from the consultations:

1. Digital literacy As the public service contends with an era of rapid technological change, it will need to make better use of new media and technology. Public service delivery has not kept pace with community expectations or needs. In today’s online environment, people can transact 24/7 with banks, airlines, insurance companies and other private sector providers. They rightly expect the same convenience and accessibility with government service provision Mobile technology can also boost internal public service productivity.

2. Commercial skills
A mixed economy of public service provision requires stronger financial management, procurement, and commissioning skills. Stronger project management skills are also needed with development focusing less on project management systems and more on areas such as resource allocation, budget literacy, team building and performance measurement and evaluation.

3. Institutional design
Understanding the principles of good governance is a critical 21st century skill. The public service needs systems that support devolution and innovation. In an environment of uncertainty, there is an imperative to be more flexible and adaptable. However this is often hindered by an inherent aversion to risk as well as frustrating bureaucratic processes. These processes (such as excessive red tape and risk management) can overload accountability and inhibit efficiency.

4. Leading change The ability to adapt to a constantly changing external and internal environment is a key capability needed at all levels of the VPS, from senior executives to frontline staff. This requires effective planning, communication and managing key relationships with internal and external stakeholders.

5. Engaging with AsiaI n 2012 the Australian Government released a White Paper Australia in the Asian Century . The paper made specific reference to the need for Australia to build its capability in working with businesses and governments in Asia and this concern was reflected in our consultations. Asia is a complex and diverse range of countries and cultures and capability identification and building will take time and considerable resource commitment. Trust building, negotiation, conflict resolution, and greater understanding of cultural difference are key capabilities that need to be developed alongside attention to the acquisition of language skills.

We have commissioned further research into ‘Asia capability’ for the Australian Public Service that will inform the School of Government’s graduate and executive education programs. Some of these ideas were also debated at an expert panel at the School’s first major conference, Public Policy in the ‘Asian Century.

Our newly established collaboration with the University of Birmingham gives us the opportunity to bring together public servants in both countries to refine and develop the key capabilities of 21st C public servants.

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One thought on “The 21st century public servant – 21stC capabilities

  1. Here’s another skill I think is at least as important as these and perhaps is something of a ‘meta’ capability that in a sense engages and connects they others…the public servant as impresario.

    It isn not my idea but comes from Nicholas Gruen, partly prompted by his work on PPPs. I won’t try and explain in too much detail, but if you think of the classic role of an impresario or producer in the culture and arts space, you will get the idea.

    This is the role of pulling different assets and resources together into a single project (actors and directors and crew to make a movie, for example) where the result is a function of (a) how well the pieces of the puzzle are selected, (b) how well aligned and sequenced all of those pieces are given the project outcomes and context and (c) how efficiently the work is done so that limited funds are not wasted.

    In the public sector, more and more of the work needed to solve problems and realise opportunities is going to be a function of this kind of expert orchestration of ideas and inputs from a lot of different sources. Public servants, at least in some roles and settings, will need these kinds of skills to achieve the big results that rely not on any particular institution or investment, but from the connection and interaction of many of them from government, business, civil society and the entrepreneurial sector too.

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