We need to recruit and reward for generic skills as well as technical expertise


The next theme from our 21st Century public servant project is that we need to recruit and reward for generic skills as well as technical expertise.

Our literature review summary highlighted the rising awareness of the ‘emotion work’ of public service, and the ways in which effective public service requires boundary spanning, highlights the need for a generic skill set – very different from the technical skill set which has been valued in public services in the past. So-called ‘soft skills’ around communication, organisation and caring are becoming more important. Davidson writes about ‘twenty-first century literacies’ – interpersonal skills (facilitation, empathy, political skills); synthesising skills (sorting evidence, analysis, making judgements, offering critique and being creative); organising skills for group work, collaboration and peer review, and communication skills, making better use of new media and multi-media resources.

A recent survey of public service employers by Hays found that employers valued these ‘soft skills’ as highly as technical skills when recruiting new staff. However, there remains a need for what might be termed ‘hard’ skills around contracting and decommissioning. What is distinctive about these skills, perhaps, is not the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ but between the techno-professional and the generic cross-sectoral. As one interviewee for our research put it, ‘We need more skills as the council becomes smaller – not just professional skills but facilitators, good questioners, coaches.’

These more generic skills demand new types of integrated skills training. However, higher education and other training and development and support continues to offer highly specialised and professional pathways that lead to particular professional qualifications. Post-qualification training remains focused on particular sectors. Those courses which look cross-sectorally tend to be leadership programmes (e.g. the Local Vision programme). There is a tendency to assume that public service careers are linear and specialised and therefore predictable.

A number of interviewees talked of the need to recruit staff differently; focusing more on values and behaviours than experience. ‘In recruitment we ask for the easy things, experience of delivering a housing repair service, knowledge-based things. And maybe it is more about asking about innovation – how have they changed a culture, impacted on a policy, introduced a new idea’. Traditional public sector recruitment methods and processes were seen by some interviewees as limiting the diversity of the type of person who might join the public sector ‘We are working to deliberately try and put articles out into different parts of the media to capture a broader range of people. We won’t be advertising in the MJ [Municipal Journal] because we don’t just want local government people.

The greater use of headhunting was suggested by some third sector interviewees as a way to increase diversity and enhance recruitment to values: ‘It is about seeing the people in other contexts and headhunting them. That’s what they do in the private sector’.

People suggested that we need to move beyond rigid national pay arrangements and job evaluation schemes that reward and promote people based on the size of the budget they manage or the number of people in their team. There was a recognition from most interviewees that management skills were lacking in public service and that these skills are not valued through the incentive systems: ‘Most people that get promoted – yes they want more responsibility but not necessarily more responsibility for managing people, it’s wanting more financial responsibility or they want more money.’

Moving away from rigid HR practices was seen by many to be the way to facilitate a more agile workforce. However others referred to how the traditional incentives that made the public sector attractive, such as good pensions, stable employment and guaranteed progression were being undermined which could have an impact on the sector’s ability to attract high quality people in future. Alongside innovative recruitment practices the sector will want to ensure that they are able to attract the ‘brightest and the best’ with the skills to act as effective public servants.

There was a consistent view from interviewees that to attain a different mix of skills in the workforce it is vital to involve HR teams in the debate about future workforce at both a strategic and operational level. Several interviewees suggested that current HR practices are too rigid to enable a flexible and agile workforce, or to provide organisations with the skills they need when they need them. Others suggested that we need to translate the strategic picture into something that HR professionals doing the recruitment can understand.

We would be interested to hear views from our HR colleagues!

Davidson C. So last century Times Higher Education. 2011(28th April):32-6

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