Service over systems – freeing the bureaucracy in public service

Dr Philip Whiteman, Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration, University of Birmingham, explains what it takes to become a public servant today, in an environment free from rigid bureaucracy.

From civil servants and contractors to private-sector suppliers and NGO providers, anyone working in public service will know that it takes a different kind of mindset to keep services up and running.

 “Gone is the traditional view of the public servant as a bureaucrat, with a tightly defined job description and policy objectives. With organisations being far more organic now, public servants need to be more flexible to deal with the demands of difficult policy and public spending situations.”

Not only do public servants need to be able to adapt and negotiate their responsibilities, they also need to be entrepreneurial in their approach in order to respond to current external challenges.

As well as flexibility, today’s public servants also have to work co-productively with users and the community. The emphasis now is more on customer service and social justice than systems and processes. However, there’s a fine line between this reputable work ethic and the demands of the employer.

“There’s often a difficult balance to strike between serving the community and the demands of the direct employer, particularly if they’re under contract to government.”

Though public services will need to diversify to meet user expectations for more rapidly delivered, open-access services, the job will remain as crucial as ever. The demands of the state are likely to continue to be the same, but for public servants, there is a growing demand for varied skillsets and new ways of thinking.

To keep pace with this changing landscape, while simultaneously improving efficiency, digital tools, such as AI, will be essential components of the public servants’ arsenal.

“As the role of the state increases, spending doesn’t, so the state has to find solutions to meet the growing demand. So, I don’t see a shrinkage of the state, I see a rapid evolution in the way public servants operate within that environment.”

Despite the positive outlook for public servants, the transition to more sophisticated, yet more economical, services presents a number of issues. In environments where policies change rapidly, there’s little time for policy to be embedded in the organisation. Similarly, where leadership and teams constantly change, due to government instability or political interference, public services become more challenging to manage.

This issue can often become compounded through entrenched, inflexible systems and processes, as well as a reliance on consultancies with opaque motives. However, with the right management, these issues can be reversed. For example, bringing in ideas from other areas of public service, other sectors or other countries can often inspire new resolutions.

“Agile and resilient types of organisations are more able to adapt to current and future challenges, especially with the right leadership, culture and entrepreneurial vigour.”

To head off these challenges, tools and strategies are useful, but fundamentally, to succeed, public servants need a sense of responsibility to the community – in other words, a ‘public service ethos’. Other fundamental markers for successful public service include agility, integrity, accountability and a willingness to accept new ideas.

“It’s not just about the tools and techniques, it’s about the cognitive understanding and the culture of the organisation, and the public service community involved. It has to be a feature of people’s thinking, a view that it’s a positive set of themes for the future.”

For public servants keen to break free of bureaucracy and embrace new ideas, further study is essential. Backed by a postgraduate programme in public administration, public servants can begin to think more critically and autonomously about public services, helping them expand their remit beyond their current practices.

“Our Online Masters of Public Administration is geared towards helping the student become more a reflective practitioner, to improve their current practice as well as their career. Because by default, if they become better public servants in their existing career, they will become more attractive to employers in their future career.”

As well as unlocking highly transferable skills, the process of researching and examining new ideas and evidence can help public servants build the flexible, open-minded mindset they need to elevate their careers and make a genuine difference to the populations they promise to serve.

To find out more about the University of Birmingham’s Online Masters of Public Administration, click here. The next student intake: March 2020.



Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies.  He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments.

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