What kind of career path will a 21st Century public servant have?


Theme #5: The 21st Century Public Servant builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services

The fifth theme from our research focuses on the career trajectory of the 21st Century public servant. For many people working in public services a new kind of career path is emerging, far removed from the traditional ‘job for life’ that was seen to characterise some parts of the public sector in the past. As one interviewee put it, ‘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.’   One interviewee described it as a zigzag career path rather than the traditional linear one where people moved up the hierarchy.

For some of the interviewees this portfolio career was felt to be a euphemism for race-to-the-bottom employment practices in public service organisations that were rapidly shrinking in response to austerity (‘The weekly sound of handclapping for another leaving do’). However for others, there was a positive aspect to having a career which took in a number of different organisations and sectors. There was a recognition that in a complex delivery context public servants need to have a better understanding of the cultures and motivations of other agencies who have roles in achieving outcomes for citizens: ‘If you’ve had couple of roles in commissioning, you need to experience life on the provider side, support service or central service – get different perspective and get broader experience.’ People’s willingness to consider working in different sectors, or experience of having done so already confirms Lewis empirical work with third sector leaders, many of whom lacked ‘an explicitly “sectored” perspective on their careers’ .[i]

Several local authority respondents talked about the benefits of working in other parts of public services and in particular the third and private sectors which gave them an insight into different cultures. People in the third sector spoke of the value of encouraging more local authority workers to experience other sectors: ‘The local authority has a particular problem in that because they are historically and culturally established institutions they get a lot of people who are used to one culture. Who could be developed to step outside of that? There is less of that in the third sector, funding comes and goes and people are more mobile. It is useful for the third sector to get into the local authority and see the whites of their eyes.’   Likewise, local authority respondents talked about the importance of bringing in people with private sector experience to help with procurement – one interviewee referred to it as a poacher turned gamekeeper approach.

Participants also spoke about the benefits of working across boundaries, and how people could be better supported to do this:

I’ve learned a huge amount by having crossed over into the private sector from local government. I would do my old job in a much different way with the skills and experience I’ve learned. I don’t see enough of the skills I’ve acquired in my current role being applied in the public sector. The private sector can learn from the public sector as well as vice versa. I brought some skills to my current role that many of my peers who have never worked in the public sector haven’t got, and in particular around working in a political environment.

Creating a shared understanding of other sectors and organisations would create ‘more understanding and more mutual respect’, as one interviewee put it.

A willingness to look across boundaries to other parts of public services was evident within the survey of recent graduate entrants to local government that we conducted as part of the research. Although a third saw themselves working solely within local government in five years time, 27% saw themselves working in the wider public sector, and 10% saw themselves in different delivery vehicles, such as social enterprises.[ii]

In these conversations with people working in different sectors interviewees talked of the importance of high trust, partnership and collaboration between public, private and third sectors, but retained low levels of trust in each other in practice. Government was characterised as ‘centralised’, ‘controlling’, ‘patronising’; the private sector as ‘a vehicle to make that profit’, the third sector as having too narrow a sense of mission. One third sector interviewee characterised government in this way:

At a strategic level, in terms of how to solve these problems, the [local authority managers] see this as entirely their responsibility, they want to control it, they wouldn’t want to get together with leaders from the third sector to think it through. The culture is still quite closed and controlling.

This low-trust environment is not one in which the public, private and third sectors appear to be able to work together under a common umbrella of public service.

If we are going down the privatisation of public services route then there’s going to be lots more partnerships between the third sector and the private sector. At the moment that’s a nightmare, there is a complete culture clash. But they are going to need to understand each other better…and challenge the stereotypes about each other.

Whilst mobility across sectors may be one way to build trust and credibility, a number of interviewees highlighted the scope for learning from other sectors through job shadowing and secondments rather than formal changes of employer.

Sabbaticals and secondments were seen as useful tools for sharing learning and gaining exposure to other organisational cultures: ‘Where I have gained most has been being located in those organisations. There needs to be structured placement opportunities of some significant length with requirement to be reflective, and some tasks as part of that. Experiential stuff is the best. Interviewees also referred to coaching, mentoring, shadowing and action learning as effective ways of developing new skills, as well as networks and relationships across the organisation and more widely:

We train people into their role too much. We don’t do any real training and development. We need more work shadowing, but with a structure. It doesn’t need to cost a lot. We need to get people working across the council with partners, not just within directorates and services. Managers need to do a lot more developing as part of PDR process.

Work Shadowing

One example of such a scheme, praised by our interviewees, is the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ A Day in the Life programme of paired secondments between the civil service and the voluntary sector. http://www.ncvo.org.uk/practical-support/cross-sector-working/work-shadow-scheme. This is a four day work shadowing programme which provides participants with the opportunity to see the commissioning landscape from the other perspectives.

[i] Lewis, D. (2008) ‘Using life histories in social policy research: the case of third sector/public sector boundary crossing’, Journal of Social Policy, 37(4): 559–78 – cited in Macmillan, R. (2010) ‘Distinction’ in the Third Sector, Birmingham: Third Sector Research Centre, p. 9.

[ii] The survey was sent to participants on two cohorts of the National Graduate Development Programme for Local Government. It was an online survey using Survey Monkey software. The figures cited here are based on 54 respondents.

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