Imagining the future Australian public service workforce

The Melbourne School of Government recently held an event to launch the report of the Australian component of the 21st century public servant research. In this blog post I set out an abridged version of the presentation that accompanied the launch of this work.


For this research Helen Sullivan and I interviewed just under thirty individuals from local, state and federal government and a variety of partners from the private and community sectors What we found was that across the public, private and community sector there seems to be a shared diagnosis of the kinds of challenges that face public services. What was less clear, however, were strategies for addressing these changes, in part because of the trade-offs associated with any action. The multi-stakeholder nature of public policy and public services means that these trade-offs will always be perceived differently by different groups, and a future public service workforce cannot choose to ignore them but will need to be able to navigate through them.

One way into addressing these challenges and trade-offs is to focus on the anticipated change in the balance of what public servants will do in the future. Currently public servants are understood to be those directly employed by government who operate on the border between the political executive and the general population. The major role distinctions are between those involved in developing policy and those delivering services, with the majority currently employed around the latter function. In the future it is anticipated that the public service workforce will be smaller and focused primarily on policy, not service-delivery.

This presents challenges to workforce planners both in terms of identifying and securing the right skill sets, but also in terms of establishing public service workers’ claims to legitimacy – so what it is that makes public servants distinctive. Traditionally many of those who work in public services are attracted by the idea of making a difference and having an impact, whereas once they may have been, at least in part, attracted by the stability that these sorts of roles offer. Stability is likely to be less relevant (and available) in the future, but the possibility of making a difference is likely to remain a powerful attractor. Demonstrating how this can be achieved in policy settings where influence comes as much from outside the public service as inside is challenging but also offers public servants the opportunity to re-establish their legitimacy as brokers of policy influence.

In terms of the sorts of roles required of the future public service workforce, we argue this will comprise a combination of old and new roles. We offer one potential vision of this and in doing so engage with the ongoing debate about the balance of technical versus generalist skills in the public service and argue that the debate is falsely constructed. What is required instead we suggest is a set of roles that will meet the demands of the future.

Unsurprisingly given that we suggest a mix of old and new roles we argue in the report that we will need old and new skills. We have conceptualised them as comprising technical, human and conceptual skills operating across the spheres of design, delivery and relationships. Many of these skills, of course, are already present in the public service workforce although these are not necessarily planned for in a systematic way. Some attributes that will require further development relate more to different ways of seeing the world than necessarily to specific technical or specialist skills.

We argue that ultimately many of the sorts of skills that will be important in the future will be ‘softer’ in nature than the professionalised and technical skills that presently dominate recruitment and promotion processes. In some ways these represent a return to the more traditional skills of public administration which have arguably been crowded out over the last thirty years or so with a preoccupation with New Public Management-type philosophies and scientific management perspectives.

In terms of issues around development and recruitment we heard that the development of skills and availability of training and education opportunities is not always as closely tied to people and performance management as it might be. This needs careful consideration particularly in a context in which future generations have different expectations of the value of work and how they engage with it. Recruiting the next generations will involve more than simply thinking about the types of benefit packages that are made available. As or more important will be the appeal to a value base and an interest in making a difference. The public service will need to present a positive narrative about itself, the breadth of different opportunities available and the chance to make a difference.

The report makes a number of points about what is important in terms of taking this agenda forward. Firstly we argue that we do not get the most that we might out of the public service workforce at present because of a lack in terms of strategic workforce planning. This is found to be wanting in many areas of public services where staffing is determined by programmes and services and not thinking holistically about the needs of the organisation. This traditional approach limits the roles that public servants take on and inhibits flexibility and mobility. The changes that we speak about will be difficult to deliver without more attention being paid to issues of strategic workforce planning.

Our second observation is that, if, as seems likely from the evidence of our research, change in public services is more likely to be incremental rather than radical, then realising the public service workforce of the future may require a series of step-by-step changes that together bring about the transformation that is needed. Working in this way requires very close attention to the individual initiatives that are likely to take effect but will also make a contribution to the broader agenda for workforce change.

The final point we make is in relation to the issue of agency. Undertaking this work we were struck by the extent to which public servants manifest a lack of agency in the process of change, and a sense that they are unable to forge the sorts of changes that they want or believe are needed. Whilst we detected a clear and collective sense of what the future would likely look like we did not detect similar conviction from public servants that they would be active players in reform. Rather we detected a concern that public services would become what others demand or allow.

A key argument for promoting the role of public servants as active players in the redesign of public services is the inevitable necessity of making trade-offs in the process of redesign. Public service systems are always subject to competing tensions and successful and sustainable systems are those able to attain some balance in managing these. Public servants are trained to appreciate and manage these tensions. If we want public services to be concerned with being a custodian of public value and the interests of the community AND be commercially astute, this will require an explicit balancing of a number of tensions. If we want to retain corporate memory and uphold the kinds of values that public services have traditionally been associated with AND recruit from quite different pools of talent outside of the traditional sphere and give individuals experience in a range of sectors and institutions, again this will require a balancing of a number of different factors. As public services are designed to benefit the public it is entirely right that a range of voices be heard in how they are reshaped, but it is essential that one of those voices should be that of public servants themselves.

The full report can be accessed here . The launch event included a response from Lord Gus O’Donnell and his take on this research can be found in this piece in the Mandarin.

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