The 21st Century Public Servant needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling


A key message emerging from our research is that the hierarchical structure of local government and the wider public sector reduces the flexibility to respond to change. Service based structures have been developed to suit the needs of the organisation rather than citizens and those trying to work with the institution and have changed quickly enough to accommodate new ways of working. As one put it, ‘We are trying to be 21st Century public servants in 19th Century organisations. There’s that constant struggle. Not only how do we change what the people are but also how do we change the organisations to allow the people to be what they need to be.’

There was a recognition that the bureaucratic structure of government does not lend itself to engaging with partners and communities and that the culture needs to change – a real challenge for large, traditional organisations with hierarchical structures.

That’s the real thing to bottom out, we’ve got to find a way of delivering relevant and engaging public service without the trappings of a big bureaucracy. We need to remove some of the barriers that stop people – some of the things that are about micro-businesses, individual people thinking we have spotted a niche for something here. The council could play a role in facilitating that, getting people together to share ideas….about creating the conditions in which that can thrive.

Most interviewees felt that the current service based structures restricted the workforce from being agile and entrepreneurial: ‘The processes that organisations need to have in place to meet their legal liabilities are the very things that hamper that flexible and responsive working’.

Interviewees argued for the need for new ways of working, such as task and finish groups rather than rigid organisational structures, with people taking part of the basis of skills not job title: ‘We don’t invite people to take part in project based on “you’re a head of” – much more about core skills or core behaviour that will be required – you have those things come and work on it.’

Some organisations are already moving towards different structures: ‘We need a customer/place based approach. Here we’re organised in a way that satisfies the needs of our citizens not in a way that satisfies our own professional boundaries’. However this is by no means the norm. There was also a recognition that adopting more flexible, organic structures could challenge the traditional professions and services. One interviewee suggested that ‘Maybe we need a new structure for local government where you have seniors that have a technical expertise, alongside people capable of making relationships, and then members.’

There was also a sense that public services need to harness technology better in order to enable more flexible working. Several interviewees made the point that as the younger generation enter the workforce they are less likely to want to be in an office from 9-5: ‘It will be less hierarchy in the future, more organised chaos, more project management. Will need to make more use of cloud technology, let people work from cafes, from home.’ The flexibility that such working provides is likely to be welcomed by many staff, although the potential isolation that mobile can create, particularly for those workers engaged in more emotionally intense encounters with citizens is an important counterweight.

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