The future shape of public service that we have described throughout our research is one where structures are fragmenting, citizens demand authentic interactions, careers require much greater self-management, commerciality and publicness must be reconciled and expectations of leadership are dispersed across the organisation. To cope with this, the workforce will need time and space for public servants to reflect. However, many of our 21st public servant research interviewees said that more value is placed on activity rather than reflection and this leads to risk aversion and lack of innovation: ‘We put huge amount of store in activity and need to get better at valuing reflection, anticipating. The risk is if we focus on here and now we may not be able to transform and innovate. How do you slow it all down?’
Another said: 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. Self assurance can be reason for making an appointment but then that person can be very short fused. How can you recruit for self criticism?
This reflective practice can help people to cope with the emotional aspects of their work. It can also be a way to manage the anxiety that people are dealing with because of the cuts. Managers in the interviews suggested that they don’t have resources to do the job and are concerned that something will go wrong because no one is listening to them. Social workers are worried that they can’t keep people safe. Chief officers are trying to balance the need to motivate people with determining where to cut the budget: ‘Directors of adult care are taking decisions about where best to create the harm’, as one put it. The end result is a ‘fake resilience’ which is unsustainable.
The reflective practice that will help staff to cope with these multiple challenges was seen as best supported through experience, coaching and mentoring than traditional training courses. One interviewee said: ‘There is a real need to work on people’s ability to learn, not just sitting in a classroom, go out, think for yourself, what it is that we don’t know. We need managers who are able to do that and do that with their staff and think about how do we help people learn.’ Several participants suggested that people should view their relationships at work with colleagues and line manager as best source of education and skills: ‘It’s less about training, more about experience.’
Organisations also need to be receptive to the learning that comes from exposure to other ways of practicing. One interviewee expressed her frustration: ‘People have been out and brought ideas back but it’s like throwing seeds onto stony ground.’ Personal development processes were felt to be too process oriented, with little emphasis on personal development and no sanction for managers who failed to develop their staff: ‘There is limited effective challenge for managers who don’t develop their staff, no one notices, whereas if people didn’t manage their budget effectively we’d be down on them straight away.’
Staff were seen to need more help to carve out time for reflection and training: ‘We don’t create the right environment for internal managers to develop the skills and knowledge that they now need. The biggest barrier to that is people’s time. There is a lot of organisational support, please feel free to take this course, but translating that aspiration into staff doing the training takes a different lever. You have to make the space for it to happen, you have to make them learn, otherwise they won’t find the time because there is never enough time to do everything already’.
Do the current appraisal, mentoring and peer support give people scope for reflective practice, to share and learn from mistakes and to take on new challenges in effective ways?