Working in 21st Century ways

needham-catherine2 Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan

We are now starting the next phase of the 21st Century public servant work, having published the project report before Christmas. There has been lots of interest in the research and we have presented the 10 themes to lots of different audiences around the country.

People are often keen to hear about how the high-level themes of the research can be translated into resources and tools for managers and staff. We are wary of reducing the project themes into a flow diagram of generic tools for any organisation. A key finding of the research is that managers and frontline staff have to be reflective and challenging, developing local forms of practice that are appropriate for the distinctive organisational context and place. The danger is otherwise that an apparently shared approach gets picked up by multiple organisations who fail to clearly define what it means for them and how it works in their own setting. This has happened with commissioning, a word which is ubiquitous within local government, but which is used differently by different organisations with  insufficient internal dialogue about what it means ‘for here’.

But we also don’t want to do research on public services which can’t be used by people in public services, so here are some things we will be doing in the next few months to enhance the usability of the research:

1. Sharing case studies of people working in ways that embody the themes of 21st Century public servant. We know that there are lots of good examples of innovative and reflective practice within public services and will be circulating stories from people who have found space to work in 21st Century ways. For frontline staff this can be about practice in which they engage with the citizen as a whole person. For managers it is about what they are doing to enable themselves and their staff to work as whole people.

2. Tracing and reporting real-time implementation. We will be working closely with a district, metropolitan and county council as they seek to redevelop their organisations in ways that are consistent with the #21cPS themes. We see this as us learning with and from practice rather than us attempting to offer organisations a single blueprint. By tracing the progress and barriers encountered by a range of different types and sizes of organisations we hope to be able to disseminate some findings about implementation which fit the different scales at which public service organisations work.

3. Working with national umbrella organisations such as LGA, PPMA and SOLACE to facilitate a dialogue with members about the relevance of the research to shared issues for public servants. These settings allow us to reflect on ways forward with different key stakeholders, including elected members, chief executives and HR Directors. Whilst some of the cultural changes required need clear buy-in from chief executives and councillors, lots of the detail will need to come via strategic HR leads, for example in identifying opportunities for secondments and techniques to increase the effectiveness of staff appraisals.

4. Undertaking more detailed research on aspects of the initial themes. For example we are keen to know which public service staff are most effectively using Twitter, and how far it is working as a medium for ‘authentic’ communication with citizens. Lots of organisations are sending their staff on social media training. We want to know what happens next: do they end up using social media effectively in their work, and if not what is it that gets in the way? In doing the work we will continue to be supported by the Public Services Academy at the University of Birmingham, and to work closely with Birmingham City Council (BCC), our original project partner. Katherine Parry, a National Graduate Programme trainee from BCC will be seconded to work with us part-time.

If you have other suggestions and ideas for ways in which we can take the research forward, do get in touch with a Catherine via email or Twitter!

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