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.

An Australian perspective on 21st Century Public Servants

Maria Katsonis

Last week I spoke at a forum on the 21st century public servant together with Dr Helen Dickinson from the Melbourne School of Government and Sir Gus O’Donnell, former Secretary of the UK Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. The occasion was the launch of the School of Government report on Imagining the 21st Century Public Service Workforce. You can download the report here.

I began with three disclaimers which warrant repeating. The first is that I spoke in a personal capacity and my views were my own as they say in the twitterverse. The same applies to this blog post. The second is that my perspective is one of a policy wonk as I have spent most of my public service career in and around central agencies. The final disclaimer is that my comments are directed more broadly to the current discourse on the future of the public service rather than the School of Government report.

As Gus pointed out, the public service is not the only institution subject to the disruptive impact of the forces of change. The same can be said of universities and the media. Similarly, the public service is not the only profession that has to adapt to a changing landscape. Just think of medicine, engineering, architecture, and law. Yet how often do we hear about the 21C doctor, architect, engineer or lawyer?

What is it about the public service discourse that places us in the archaic days of cardigan wearing, typewriter tapping, pen pushing public servants? Even more so, what is it about our profession that attracts commentary and opinions about how our profession needs to change from people outside of the profession?

As a policy wonk, I read extensively about public administration and I’ve also attended a number of conferences during the year. These are some of the comments I’ve heard or read about how the public service needs to change:

  • More open, networked and horizontal organisations adept at collaboration inside and outside government are required.
  • There is an imperative for new ways of delivering services that will require a public service that has a culture of innovation and high performance.
  • The public service of the future will be engaged and focussed on delivering for citizens.
  • You must focus on your core mission and understand your customers.
  • The public sector must now undertake a transformation that would require public servants to make a step change – listen to your customers, break down the silos and continuously improve through customer feedback.

I wonder whether the people responsible these comments actually think my colleagues and I come to work:

  • not wanting to deliver and make an impact
  • committed to building silos
  • dedicated to underwhelming performance
  • focussed on non-core business.

The fact is I do work in a modern public service and I’ve seen much change in how we work over my 16 year career although admittedly we could do better on the digital front. The other paradox I find curious is that as a profession we hold the levers for change if we do agree with the commentators that we need to become more collaborative, open, networked, citizen-centric, customer focussed, innovative and high performing. The one exception is industrial relations where we don’t hold all the levers.

There was unanimous consensus among the panelists that instead of being seen as a static public service that has change foisted upon it, we need to be equipped to shape the future. Instead of the future public service we should be thinking about future proofing the public service.

The School of Government report conceives of a ‘foresighter’ role underpinned by strategic thinking and horizon scanning to anticipate and prepare for future shifts in the operating environment. The Centre for Strategic Futures is the Singapore Prime Minister’s Office best exemplifies this approach. The Centre drives the development of public service capabilities in preparing for the future and in addressing emerging strategic challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps it is a case of back to the future if we revisit the 1974 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs chaired the Royal Commission and was one of Australia’s most influential civil servants, serving and advising seven prime ministers over a thirty-year period.

In an address, Coombs described effective government as requiring a partnership between the political arm of government and the bureaucracy. In this partnership, Coombs saw the role of public administrators as that of an ‘enabler—of making it possible for the dreams of others to be achieved’.

He said: ‘Beneath the vanities, self-interest and extravagances of any government there is, at least, potentially an element of vision about a juster and more humane society. It is the function of the administrator to recognise that vision and work to give the vision a local habitation.’

These words ring equally true nearly forty years later, even for the 21st century public servant in the making.

Maria Katsonis works for the Department for Premier and Cabinet, Victoria, Australia

The 21st century public servant – 21stC capabilities

Maria Katsonis, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria
Helen Sullivan, Melbourne School of Government

In 2013 the Melbourne School of Government and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet began collaborating on a project to explore the roles, skills and characteristics of the 21st century public servant.

This blog describes the 21stC capabilities we identified through extensive consultations with colleagues within the Victorian Public Service (VPS) and with innovative thinkers and experienced analysts outside the VPS.

A number of capabilities were identified during the consultations. Some were distinctly new, identified in response to the changing public service environment. Others, such as outsourcing and contract management are capabilities associated with the 20th and possibly even the 19th century, that require better execution or additional capacity.

Five priority capabilities emerged from the consultations:

1. Digital literacy As the public service contends with an era of rapid technological change, it will need to make better use of new media and technology. Public service delivery has not kept pace with community expectations or needs. In today’s online environment, people can transact 24/7 with banks, airlines, insurance companies and other private sector providers. They rightly expect the same convenience and accessibility with government service provision Mobile technology can also boost internal public service productivity.

2. Commercial skills
A mixed economy of public service provision requires stronger financial management, procurement, and commissioning skills. Stronger project management skills are also needed with development focusing less on project management systems and more on areas such as resource allocation, budget literacy, team building and performance measurement and evaluation.

3. Institutional design
Understanding the principles of good governance is a critical 21st century skill. The public service needs systems that support devolution and innovation. In an environment of uncertainty, there is an imperative to be more flexible and adaptable. However this is often hindered by an inherent aversion to risk as well as frustrating bureaucratic processes. These processes (such as excessive red tape and risk management) can overload accountability and inhibit efficiency.

4. Leading change The ability to adapt to a constantly changing external and internal environment is a key capability needed at all levels of the VPS, from senior executives to frontline staff. This requires effective planning, communication and managing key relationships with internal and external stakeholders.

5. Engaging with AsiaI n 2012 the Australian Government released a White Paper Australia in the Asian Century . The paper made specific reference to the need for Australia to build its capability in working with businesses and governments in Asia and this concern was reflected in our consultations. Asia is a complex and diverse range of countries and cultures and capability identification and building will take time and considerable resource commitment. Trust building, negotiation, conflict resolution, and greater understanding of cultural difference are key capabilities that need to be developed alongside attention to the acquisition of language skills.

We have commissioned further research into ‘Asia capability’ for the Australian Public Service that will inform the School of Government’s graduate and executive education programs. Some of these ideas were also debated at an expert panel at the School’s first major conference, Public Policy in the ‘Asian Century.

Our newly established collaboration with the University of Birmingham gives us the opportunity to bring together public servants in both countries to refine and develop the key capabilities of 21st C public servants.