21st century public organisations, professionals and academics: some ideas and thoughts

Sharon Squires from Sheffield First Partnership suggests ways in which public service can work more collaboratively to co-design new solutions.

As debates on the future of public services and programmes of public service reform gain momentum, early ideas around the future of public service organisations and the skills required by 21st century public servants are beginning to emerge. It is becoming clear that the public services of the future will need:
• to be collaborative, with a focus on issues and outcomes;
• to be place-based and place-relevant;
• to develop shared strategies and interventions that work across organisations and professions;
• to co-design and co-produce solutions with citizens and businesses; and
• to have the capacity to continuously innovate and be agile and adaptive.
But these skills are new for many organisations and public servants. Organisational cultures and practices have developed within tight silos and professions, operating within the New Public Management culture of targets, bureaucracy and individualism. Austerity means, unfortunately, that there is reducing capacity for organisations to ‘rethink’ their role and approaches.

Many of the ideas about the future of public services are therefore coming from think-tanks, academia and the private sector. At its best, this approach to co-producing new thinking and new models is hugely useful, and aggregates up effectively the experiences, thoughts, ideas and dilemmas of busy public servants. The 21st century public servant blog is an example of such an approach. However, at its worst, ideas developed outside public services can exploit public servants, using organisations and workers as research material but undertaking analysis and debate without their input.

The challenge is to find more effective ways for public services and those with greater analytical resource and capacity to work together. And this needs to be done at a local, regional and national level. Bringing academics, practitioners and political leaders together to discuss complex issues, such as:
• new models of governance generated by the devolution agenda; or
• collaborative leadership of cross-sector organisational change leading to; for example, integrated commissioning of social care; or
• how best to co-design solutions with communities;
can only be beneficial, sharing knowledge, evidence and ideas.

Whilst such an approach asks universities and academics to become more central to co-designing solutions, it also requires practitioners and political leaders to appreciate academic input as more central to considering options for new organisational and professional forms of the future.

Sharon Squires is Director of Sheffield First Partnership.

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