I read with interest the recent announcement from Birmingham City Council that they did not intend to recruit a replacement chief executive, but would instead create a ‘lead officer’ role. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable not to have a chief executive at the head of a council. Now, with councils debating what their role is, and the need to seize an opportunity to make savings, more and more councils are making the decision to remove the chief executive post entirely.
Arguments about whether this is a good idea or not have been much debated in the local government world, but I’m interested in what this says to those seeking a career in local government, and the wider public service. If the very pinnacle of public service, a council chief executive, is no longer a relevant role, what does this mean for the wider workforce? As the ‘how and what’ of local government changes, so too must the workforce. How can public servants ensure they remain relevant, and ready for the future challenges? What does a public servant in the 21st century look like? How do those of us who provide development support to the workforce best work with them to give them the skills to achieve?
These are questions we will be exploring through a new knowledge exchange project in partnership with Birmingham City Council, funded through the ESRC. Over the next year we will examine the recent literature, carry out interviews with key stakeholders and create an on line resource to support public servants seeking support and development. We aim to address key questions such as:
What is the range of different roles of the twenty first century public servant? As people’s roles expand to encompass the whole person in a system, they can no longer dispense professional judgement in isolation. They need to be negotiators, brokers, story-tellers and resource weavers. Perhaps no longer a social worker but a care navigator.
What are the competencies and skills that public servants require to achieve these roles? What do you need to be good at to be an effective family support worker? Probably an ability to empathise, engage, motivate and inspire. Along with the skills to get things done. What might that look like in a professional development plan? How do we best support people to develop those roles and skills? Skills for the 21st century public servant may not be those that can be developed through traditional training; we need to think imaginatively about supporting peer learning, sharing knowledge about what works; facilitating networks of learning.
And as the career path becomes more complex and less certain; with roles spanning organisations and sectors, how can central and local government better support and promote public service as a career?
We are looking forward to exploring the ideas and issues raised by these questions, and want to hear what those of you working in or supporting the public sector have to say. If you’d like to know more about the project, or contribute in any way, contact us. We’d love to hear your views.
Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV. Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change. She is currently leading the 21st century public servant project, in partnership with Catherine Durose and Catherine Needham. She can be contacted about the project via email, or on Twitter – and you can join the conversation: #21CPS.
One thought on “If I asked you to describe a 21st century public servant, what would you say?”
I follow with interest the debate around modern day public services. As someone who spent 16 years in central government, often frustrated by lack of pace and flexibility, I now run my own company in the building industry. It is interesting to now witness the public service transformation into a more flexible and adaptable industry. The skills between public and private sector workers has never been closer, as true transparency and public scrutiny finally brings true accountability.
Anyone who has experienced tough times in both sectors will recognise that leadership is critical in bringing change and survival. I hope this project gives the public sector, much of which remains strong, hope for the future.