Sarah Messenger, Head of Workforce at LGA, on how we should focus on behaviours rather than values

As part of our 21st Century Public servant blog we are asking some key stakeholders to contribute their views. This week Sarah Messenger from LGA talks about how we should focus on the behaviours of our workforce, rather than their values.

Do we really care what people think? Inevitably the answer will be ‘it depends’. The views of our partners, friends and family are usually very important to us and we care about and want to understand the experiences, values, cultural influences and beliefs that have helped to shape those views. But as we consider what we will want from the 21st century public servant, is it time to stop worrying about what our workforce think and focus much more on what they do?

I say this because organisations across all sectors are obsessed with values. Just so I’m clear, there’s nothing wrong with values and beliefs. They’re an integral part of who we all are and, in a work context, they play a role in defining organisational culture and can help to develop a sense of identity for the organisation. My concern is how we translate ‘values’ into something that can be identified and measured within the people we employ. And that’s when it can all start to get into mind games!

I see some similarities with the equalities agenda over the past 30 years or so. The public sector, and councils in particular, deserve huge credit for the enormous strides we have made to ensure workplaces are not only respectful of different social identities but actively seek out and celebrate the many benefits that diversity brings. But as we reflect on the world of work today, many of us will remember the approach to ‘equal opportunities’ in the 80s and 90s when there was a strong emphasis on dealing with how people thought and trying to change it, where it was at odds with what the organisation believed was right. Since organisations didn’t want to employ bigots, it was reasonable to train them not to be bigots. The problem is that none of us can be sure we succeeded in that; the only measure was how people behaved when they were on paid time at work and even the most sophisticated of organisations couldn’t assess what people were saying or thinking at 10pm on a Saturday night in the comfort of their own home. Indeed, we can never be sure what someone is thinking or believes, even at work; we can only assess whether what they are saying, delivering or how they are behaving is consistent with what we pay them to do. Of course, this also includes not bringing the organisation into disrepute when they’re away from work!

So I want 21st century public sector organisations and services to focus even more on behaviours and what people who are providing services actually do and how they do it. I don’t want someone to come into an interview and tell me how committed they are to the values of public service – I want them to show me through tangible examples and evidence of how they have put customers at the heart of what they do, how they have treated people with respect and how they’ve delivered great outcomes that made a difference to people’s lives. What they really think of public services and what they really ‘value’ in life are not my concern.

Sarah Messenger
Head of Workforce
Local Government Association

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3 thoughts on “Sarah Messenger, Head of Workforce at LGA, on how we should focus on behaviours rather than values

  1. Pingback: Can authenticity be measured? | 21st Century Public Servant

  2. Pingback: 21st Century public service – is it a thing? « Podnosh

  3. Pingback: Public service ethos: Concentrate on values and behaviour will follow | 21st Century Public Servant

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