A literature review on 21st Century Public Servants

This week we publish the literature review from our 21st Century Public Servant project, which highlights the extent to which public services will require a different set of workforce roles than in the past. It highlights 8 key themes:

  1. Future public services will require a different set of workforce roles than in the past
  2. Citizens are changing too
  3. Generic skills will be as important as technical skills for future public servants  
  4. Ethics and values are changing as the boundaries of public service shift
  5. Emotional labour will be a key element of future public service work
  6. Perma-austerity is catalysing and inhibiting change
  7. Hero leaders aren’t the answer
  8. Lots of professions are coming to these conclusions, but are tackling the issues separately

The next stage of the research is to analyse and write up the interviews we are doing for the project to see how far that confirms or challenges the themes from the literature.

Undertaking a literature review on a project like this generates a number of challenges. There is a need to settle on an understanding of who public servants actually are. For a long time these individuals have largely been thought to reside in the public sector but with increasingly mixed economies of welfare we find that many who have public service roles work for for-profit or not-for-profit organisations outside of the public sector. This is a hot topic of debate within the literature and one which has not been reconciled in the ‘real world’. We have been inclusive in our search of the literature and where pieces have talked about people working in public services (even outside the public sector) we have included these perspectives.

Many different academic disciplines have an interest in public service reform and part of the challenge in bringing together lessons on this topic is that we have had to reconcile different disciplinary perspectives that do not always speak to each other well. We have also included grey literature in this search to provide a more up-to-date perspective but this also brings with it other challenges. The grey literature often has descriptions – and frequently – prescriptions of what should happen based on particular beliefs of the way the world is. The academic literature we find is more often circumspect about what should happen, diagnosing a problem but not pointing to much in terms of solutions beyond the macro level. The academic literature also typically lags behind everyday changes as quality research takes time to catch up with the events of the day.

Bringing these different literatures and perspectives together was never going to be easy, and given the nature of the evidence base was never going to be a systematic review of the evidence or a last word on this topic. As such, we have tried to write this as an accessible piece that signposts some of the main areas which are highlighted in the literature. We hope that this will generate debate and be further developed over the process of the research.



7 thoughts on “A literature review on 21st Century Public Servants

    1. Sorry Zoe. It looks like they have taken it down. I will email it to you this evening and look into getting the link fixed – Catherine N

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