The literature on workforce roles

There is an emergent consensus in the academic and policy literature that public services of the future will require more relational approaches. 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 became evident (1,2). Denhardt and Denhardt (3) argue that the role of government has moved beyond rowing and steering to ‘negotiating and brokering interest among citizens and community groups, creating shared values’. These changes place crucial emphasis on the relationships that are built within public service networks and with citizens. A 2012 report by the IPPR argued, ‘Recognising the importance of human relationships could revolutionise the role of the state’ (4)). Similar arguments have been made in reports by Demos (e.g.5) NESTA, Participle ( and the RSA’s 2020 Public Services programme ( This literature, and the discussion here, primarily focuses on England, although similar debates are being held in other advanced welfare states (e.g. Australia, 6).

It is not always clear in this literature whether this relational turn results from socio-economic, demographic and technological change, or whether the policy community is catching up on the extant reality that relationships matter. Certainly, there are a series of secular trends which are increasing the significance of public service interventions that focus on long-term relationships between the people who use and provide public services. These include the growth in chronic health conditions and long-term unemployment, and the declining levels of trust between citizens and agents of the state (7). However, in some of this literature there appears to be a harking back to a lost era of the community social worker, the district nurse, the hospital matron and family doctor, that allegedly thrived before new public management destroyed relationships in the name of efficiency.

A University of Birmingham Policy Commission into the Future of Local Public Services (8) identified four new roles which will be performed by the public servants of the future:

  • Storyteller – the ability to author and communicate stories of how new worlds of local public services might be envisioned in the absence of existing blueprints, drawing on experience and evidence from a range of sources. The ability to fashion and communicate options for the future, however tentative and experimental, will be crucial in engaging services users, citizens and staff.
  • Resource-weaver – the ability to make creative use of existing resources regardless of their intended/original use; weaving together miscellaneous and disparate materials to generate something new and useful for service users and citizens.
  • System-architect – someone who is able to describe and compile coherent local systems of public support from the myriad of public, private, third sector and other resources. This is a role that combines prescription with compilation and it is an ongoing task as system resources are likely to vary over time and space.
  • Navigator – a role specifically focused on guiding citizens and service users around the range of possibilities that might be available in a system of local public services. This is the kind of role that some area-based regeneration workers and neighbourhood co-ordinators and managers have developed in the past on a ‘patch’ basis.

The Commission envisaged that these roles were to be undertaken alongside some existing, but relatively new, roles: commissioner, broker and reticulist (or networker), and four-longstanding roles (regulator, protector, adjudicator and expert).


A metaphor for understanding these changing roles is offered by the Work Foundation (9): ‘‘All employees should be motivated and incentivised to view their service from the ‘outside in’, or from the perspective of the service user or citizen. The aim must be to create a reflective frame of reference where public servants have both the capacity for constructive criticism and the capability to devise creative solutions to the problems that they confront.’

  1. Rhodes RAW. Understanding governance: Policy networks, governance, reflexivity and accountability. Buckingham: Open University Press; 1997 1997.
  2. Osborne SP. The New Public Governance? Public Management Review. 2006;8(3):377-87.
  3. Denhardt RB, Denhardt JV. The New Public Service: Serving rather than steering. Public Administration Review. 2000;60(6):549.
  4. Cooke G, Muir R. The Relational State. London: IPPR: 2012.
  5. Olliff-Cooper J, Wind-Cowie M, Bartlett J. Leading from the Front. London: Demos: 2009.
  6. Melbourne School of Government and Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet. The 21st century public servant: a discussion paper. Melbourne: Melbourne School of Government, 2013.
  7. Griffiths S, Foley B, Prendergast J. Assertive Citizens: New Relationships in the Public Services. London: Social Market Foundation: 2009.
  8. University of Birmingham Policy Commission. ‘When tomorrow comes’: the future of local public services. Birmingham: 2011 2011. Report No.
  9. Work Foundation. Public Value – the next steps in public service reform. London: The Work Foundation: 2008.

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