Summary of findings

10 themes from the research

The research has identified a series of characteristics which are associated with the 21st Century Public Servant. The ten themes are described in summary below and in more detail in separate themed blogs.

The 21st Century Public Servant…

1. …is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles

Future public services require a set of workforce roles which may be different than those of the past. As one interviewee put it, ‘In the future you will need to be a municipal entrepreneur, a steward of scarce public resources.’ New roles that may be performed by the public servants of the future include story-teller, resource weaver, systems architect and navigator.

2…engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise

The notion of working co-productively, or in partnership, with citizens was the preferred approach of most interviewees: ‘Valued outcomes in public services are not things that can be delivered, they are always co-produced’, as one put it. One of the suggested approaches was alluringly simple: ‘It’s about being human, that’s what we need to do’. One clear finding from the research was that the widespread calls for whole person approaches to care and support necessitate working practices in which staff are also able to be ‘whole people’.

3. …is recruited and rewarded for generic skills as well as technical expertise

Generic skills are becoming as important as professional skills, with ‘soft skills’ around communication, organisation and caring becoming more highly prized. One interviewee said: ‘We need people who are really good with people and can form relationships, who are able to learn quickly.’ According to another, ‘engaging with citizens and the use, analysis and interpretation of data to understand your local populations, they are quite newish sets of skills for people who work in local authorities’

4….builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services

People are unlikely to stay in one sector or service area for life and require portable skills that are valued in different settings. People need opportunities to learn and reflect on new skills, which may be through action learning, mentoring, job shadowing and sabbaticals rather than formal training: ‘People will have portfolio careers, working in different sectors, working for different people at the same time, not just sequentially. It’s not a job for life, or even for 5 years’, said one interviewee.

 5…combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality

Ethics and values are changing as the boundaries of public service shift, with notions of the public sector ethos being eclipsed by an increased push towards commercialism, along with a wider focus on social value. One interviewee said, ‘Local government will need more private sector skills, more crossover of skills and people. If staff in local government don’t have the commercial skills they won’t be employable. We have to help them get them.’ Another interviewee said: ‘I think there will be a fight between altruism and commercialism. We need managers who still care.’

6… rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of perma-austerity

Perma-austerity is inhibiting and catalysing change, as organisations struggle to balance short-term cost-cutting and redundancies with a strategic vision for change. Some interviewees expressed this in very negative terms: ‘There’s a narrative of doom…’s all about survival’. For others there was a potentially positive aspect to the financial context: ‘The cuts are forcing us to confront change. In public service, change doesn’t necessarily happen unless there is a crisis or a disaster, or it happens very slowly.’

7…needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling

Many of the organisations where our interviewees were located had been through recent restructuring and there was little appetite for more structural change. Nevertheless there was a feeling that the organisations were not necessarily fit for purpose: ‘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?’ This can be about addressing issues of organisational culture, rather than assuming that new structures will be the solution.

8…rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leading

Hero leaders aren’t the answer. Rather than emphasising the charisma and control of an individual, new approaches focus on leadership as dispersed throughout the organisation. This could be about thinking about leadership at the front line in a way that traverses traditional service sectors: ‘We should offer a career in community leadership. The 21st century public servant should be able to cross organisational boundaries.’

 9…is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity

The role of place in public service needs to be recognised: public service workers often have a strong loyalty to the neighbourhoods and towns/cities in which they work as well as an organisational loyalty. For some interviewees this was about staff being based in the locality: ‘Above a certain grade you should be required to live in [the council area], because you are making huge decisions on how people will live, work and spend their recreational time.’ For others it was about putting professional knowledge into an appropriate context for the locality: ‘Professionalism will be the death of local government. It’s that lack of ability to soften and shape stuff according to locality.’ 

10 ...reflects on practice and learns from that of others

The public service changes that we have set out here in which structures are fragmenting, citizens require authentic interactions, careers require much greater self-management, commerciality and publicness must be reconciled and expectations of leadership are dispersed across the organisation, require time and space for public servants to reflect: ‘You need spaces where you take yourself apart and sort it out with the fact that the organisation is expecting you to glide along like a swan looking serenely happy with no mistakes whatsoever.’

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