New roles for the 21st Century Public Servant

Illustration by Laura Brodrick,
Illustration by Laura Brodrick,

Theme #3 The 21st Century Public Servant is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles

The third theme from our research findings is that public services of the future require a different set of workforce roles than in the past. This is a consistent finding from the literature synthesis, interviews and survey findings that were undertaken for this project. The concepts of networking and governance have been dominant in the public management literature for many years, as the limitations of hierarchy and market-based approaches have become evident. Both networking and governance theories understand local public services as a system, characterised by ambiguity, complexity and messiness.

The workforce implications of these more fluid approaches are starting to get the attention that they require. As one interviewee put it, in a local government context: ‘There’s an urgency now about it, what does the future council look like?’ Workforce roles need to be less rigid to flourish in a context of messiness. According to another interviewee, ‘In systems leadership everything is both/ and. This takes a different sort of being. Ambivalence is culturally necessary.  Social workers and GPs mean different things by a care plan and we need to accept that.’

Whereas existing organisational structures have labelled people according to their technical competence – planner, accountant, housing officer – there may be more appropriate terms to suggest the workforce roles that public servants are performing. A University of Birmingham Policy Commission into the Future of Local Public Services in 2011 suggested four new roles that would be performed by the public servants of the future: story teller, resource weaver, systems architect and navigator. In a survey of new entrants to local government undertaken for this project, all of these roles were viewed as relevant and important, with resource weaver being rated highest as the one that was most important to their own job.

The new entrants to local government also suggested alternative roles such as:

  • Developer: increasing the sustainability, ability and flexibility of public services
  • Defender: negotiating to ensure local government is getting the most for its buck, as are its residents.
  • Balancer: balancing conflicting demands, pressures and views

Other roles suggested by interviewees include municipal entrepreneurs, and stewards of scarce public resources.

These new roles are likely to co-exist with more established roles. The University of Birmingham Policy Commission Report highlighted existing roles which were likely to continue to be important: commissioner, broker, networker, adjudicator, regulator, protector. Of these, it was commissioning which was raised most frequently by interviewees. There was a widespread assumption that commissioning was a vital function but one that often is not done well. The Government’s Commissioning Academy was felt to be too small to encompass the numbers of people now engaged in public service commissioning. One said of commissioning, ‘It’s such an important job to spend money well, but commissioning teams are often pulled apart, good people have left. That’s not where you should be cutting from.’ However some interviewees cautioned against seeing commissioning as the cure-all for public services: ‘We are seeing the development of a commissioning cadre over everything… commissioning is seasonal and no-one should have it in their job title.  What is the value of commissioning?  Strategic commissioning adds value but does micro commissioning?’

Similarly not everyone accepted the narrative of changing roles: ‘the roads will still need to be swept, the leaves will still fall off the trees so for some parts of the workforce it will be business as usual. The idea of change has been oversold’, said one interviewee.
What is clear is that the roles public servants of the future will play is contentious and matters to people. These roles reveal much about what individuals expect of public services and the place they see for government in our society.

In our next blog post we will draw on the Australian part of our research project and the future roles from this context.

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