‘It’s about being human, that’s what we need to do,’

A key theme of our research is about how public servants interact with citizens (see here for the full list of themes). Here we look at the importance of 21st Century Public Servants engaging with citizens in  way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise.


The literature review summary for the project highlighted the growth of a citizenry which is more assertive, and in which the notion of deference to professional judgment feels increasingly out of date. This partly reflects greater affluence and education levels. It is also about demographic changes such as the increased incidence of long-term health conditions about which citizens have time to develop a level of expertise. New technologies are changing expectations about how and when citizens engage with the state, as well as fostering the emergence of ‘scientific citizenship’ which challenges existing notions of professional expertise.[i]

The workforce challenges of engaging with a more assertive and technologically-savvy citizenry are not necessarily well understood. For some interviewees the notion of customer service was evoked to convey an approach which offered timely and effective contact with citizens. The limits of the customer metaphor were noted however, given that demand management was seen as a crucial element of future public service working, with no obvious private sector analogue.[ii] Many of the interviewees saw consumerism as a potential blind alley, which threatened to artificially raise citizen expectations but also to dampen the political aspects of the role of citizen – ‘let’s not call them customers, I hate that word’, as one said.

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. The skills needed for this may not be in place however. A third sector chief executive commented on poor practice in engagement with citizens by the local authority: ‘…managers were meant to be working with community groups but didn’t know how to just be human, not part of the system. They don’t know how to just participate as a person without the weight of the organisation on them.’ For a number of people interviewed there was concern that the public were absent from the conversations about how to do co-production well. As one put it:

The public are a partner in the conversation that’s just not there, they keep being talked about. If you are interested in co-production, in solutions coming from communities and individuals, then you are going to have to start talking to them about how you see things, how might that work for them. Otherwise it’s not going to happen.

As well as making the citizen visible, there is a need to recognise and harness their expertise, as initiatives such as the Expert Patient Programme and People Powered Health have done.[iii] One interviewee working in local government observed the big cultural challenge that this posed: ‘We need to be enablers not managers, enabling people to do it for themselves. We won’t be in charge. That’s a big culture change, it’s difficult for people to get their heads around. It requires us to be more honest and trusting.’

Facilitating this cultural change is of course a key challenge for local authorities. One of the suggested approaches was alluringly simple: ‘It’s about being human, that’s what we need to do,’ as one interviewee put it. This notion of being human in dealings with citizens is a recurrent theme of what interviewees see as essential to a 21st Century Public Servant. As one said:

People need to be able to relate humanly to each other in the way they deliver services but in the way they assess people for services too. You can satisfy the requirements of the system but you won’t have solved the problem that’s dragging someone down in their life. That’s why public services work again and again with the same people as their problems get deeper and deeper.

The tendency to engage with citizens only partially or temporarily dealing with issues was reflected by several interviewees: ‘Individuals need the power to resolve a resident’s problem – e.g. currently if the police make a visit to a home they can’t resolve issues – they can only send people to the homeless shelter.’ One interviewee used the metaphor of citizens being treated as items on a conveyor belt: ‘Officers have responsibility not authority – like Yo Sushi, lots of trays going round but no-one wants to pick them up. We need a mechanism to identify those things they want to change and come together to work on them.’ More holistic ways of working were seen as delivering high levels of job satisfaction for workers: ‘People want to go the extra mile because there’s a satisfaction in good work well done and in solving someone’s problems. There’s an end point.’ The work intensification and episodic nature of citizen interaction in call centres, in contrast, was felt likely to increase staff burnout: ‘Answering phones in a call centre has no end point.’

There is a symmetry to the way that people spoke about the changing relationship between staff and citizens. If workers can crack this more human way of engaging with people it will enable citizens to be treated more holistically – as a whole person rather than a set of conditions or needs. 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’.[iv]

For some respondents this common humanity will emerge if unnecessary regulations are stripped away. One interviewee gave this example: ‘Statutory workers with looked after children are not allowed to hug them. What crazy system have we got when those most in need of affection are denied it by the corporate parent on the grounds of somehow protecting them, that’s crazy?’ For another, ‘Authenticity…is critical. We need to learn its ok to say I made a mistake: this isn’t car insurance – you have to start off saying you’re sorry.’

Good interaction with the public is partly about giving people permission to ‘be themselves’, as these quotes suggest, but it will also require effective planning and support. The skill set identified in the co-production literature suggests that it is a combination of more informal roles (‘part good neighbour’) with more formally trained roles (‘part facilitator, part advocate, part support worker’).[v] The expertise for more effective relationships with citizens may well not exist within the corporate centre of the organisation but on the periphery. One interviewee suggested that the community engagement work that ‘used to be tucked out in neighbourhood offices’ now ‘has to be part of the corporate function of the local government.’ According to another, ‘The council doesn’t know how to combine knowledge and information e.g. from ward councillors. They need to develop internal co-production.’

More attention also needs to be given to the emotional labour of public service workers, particularly in a context in which they are engaging in more naturalistic ways with citizens. As one interviewee put it, ‘You need to be prepared to get out there and mingle with the real world and other people. And that’s emotionally draining. So when I go home in the evening (I’m actually an introvert) I’m really drained.’ Emotional labour is defined as, ‘the expression of one’s capacity to manage personal emotions, sense others’ emotions, and to respond appropriately, based on one’s job’.[vi] In its response to the Francis Report into events at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, the government explicitly evoked the concept of ‘The Emotional Labour of Care’, writing: ‘Working in health and care is inherently emotionally demanding. To support staff to act consistently with openness and compassion, teams need to be given time and space to reflect on the challenging emotional impact of health and care work’.[vii]

This increased awareness of the need for resilient responses to emotional labour constitutes a new dimension of public service practice. However there are challenges here for traditional notions of professionalism and distance. More humane services in which ‘authentic’ connections are made between people using and providing services, challenge the assumption that professionals should preserve distance and restraint. Yet professional boundaries may be an important part of self-care, and it is important to consider what support staff themselves need in order to sustain good relationships with citizens.[viii] The need for reflective practice in response to this emotion work and boundary spanning is dealt with in chapter ten below.[ix]

[i] Elam, Mark, and Margareta Bertilsson. 2003. “Consuming, Engaging and Confronting Science The Emerging Dimensions of Scientific Citizenship.” European Journal of Social Theory 6 (2): 233–251.

[ii] On this see RSA (2014) Managing Demand: Building Future Public Services, London: RSA/LGA/ESRC/iMPOWER/Collaborate; Mangan, C. and Goodwin, D. (2013)

‘Beyond Nudge: how can behaviour change help us do more with less?’, Birmingham: Institute of Local Government Studies

[iii] Expert Patient Programme http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/AboutNHSservices/doctors/Pages/expert-patients-programme.aspx and People Powered Health http://www.nesta.org.uk/project/people-powered-health

[iv] Bickerstaffe S. (2013) Towards Whole Person Care, London: IPPR.http://www.ippr.org/publication/55/11518/towards-whole-person-care;

Oldham Report (2014) One Person, One Team, One System, London: Labour Party, http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/One_Person_One_Team_One_System.pdf

[v] Poll C. Co-Production in Supported Housing: KeyRing Living Support Networks and Neighbourhood Networks Research Highlights in Social Work: Co-production and Personalisation in Social Care, Changing Relationships in the Provision of Social Care 2007;49:49-66.

[vi] Mastracci SH, Newman MA, Guy ME. Emotional labor: Why and how to teach it. Journal of Public Affairs Education. 2010:123-41.

[vii]. Department of Health. Patients First and Foremost, The Initial Government Response to the Report of The Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry,. London: The Stationery Office: 2013.

[viii] Glendinning C, Halliwell S, Jacobs S, Rummery K, Tyer J. New Kinds of Care, New Kinds of Relationships: How Purchasing Affects Relationships in Giving and Receiving Personal Assistance. Health and Social Care in the Community. 2000;8(3):201-11.

[ix]  Newman, J. (2012). Working the spaces of power: activism, neoliberalism and gendered labour. A&C Black.

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