How do undergraduates construct their view of a public service professional?

This post is based on Sarah Jeffries’ MSc dissertation, which she completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Sarah Jeffries

Working in a University Careers Service you get to hear a lot of voices, particularly those of students and employers. The students are preparing themselves to enter the workforce, develop their careers, and have an impact within their chosen sector. Whilst having a discussion with one such student, the subject of his skills and working within the public sector arose; his response was: No, I want to work somewhere professional”, which he then identified as the private sector. 

That was a powerful statement, however it was by no means unique. There are often misconceptions about the types of skills currently being sought in the public sector (and that’s not limited to students), particularly those for graduate-entry roles and graduate recruitment programmes. This is also in addition to the ‘professionalism’ of public sector workers being called in to question.

The modernisation agenda and increasing comparisons with the perceived efficiencies of the private sector have also given rise to unfavourable judgements in comparison. Conversely, how are students with ‘public sector motivation’ perceiving the skills and understandings required from a role in the public sector? Are they developing the skills required for the changing public sector landscape?

The modernisation agenda has also brought an increase in public-private partnerships, and the reality is that many public service professionals work across sector boundaries. This is reflected in the skills being sought by public sector graduate recruiters, for example: the 2012 National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) ‘Bright Future Report’ stated: “Increasingly councils need skills that have not been developed before, including commercial acumen and commissioning ability in order to deliver services through partners” (P.9). These are skills traditionally viewed as private-sector related.

Using Q-methodology, I researched how students constructed their view of a Public Service Professional to make sense of how we can best prepare students for the realities of public sector life, and the changing nature of the workforce.

Q-methodology allows the researcher to explore the concourse of debate surrounding a topic, and provides a mechanism to understand how an undergraduate student perceives representative statements, in relationship to each other. This provides an illuminating picture of how their reality is constructed.

The concourse in this area was broad with a need to capture a range of voices (media reports, social media, job descriptions, student discussion boards, literature review, and interviews with students, graduate and non-specific graduate recruiters (multiple sectors)), and it highlighted the conflicting messages being presented. These ranged from “seeking ambitious graduates” to “outdated”; from “popular graduate destination” to “huge job losses”; to “crossing sector boundaries in role” and “working in silos”.

Students completed a sorting exercise using statements that encompassed the range of debate, and participated in an accompanying interview. The results reveal seven different factors or viewpoints, reflecting the complexity of the changing working landscape.  These included polarised positive and negative perceptions of public sector professionals, in addition to idealistic and stereotyped interpretations that do not necessarily reflect reality. These findings highlight the potential difficulties in recruiting the best, and most prepared candidates for positions. The research recommended that further sector specific research be undertaken to increase the understanding for public sector recruiters. This is hopefully, where my application for a PhD comes in…

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Sarah Jeffries has just completed a part-time MSc in Public Management with INLOGOV. She works for the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham, managing the University’s optional employability programme: the Personal Skills Award. Sarah also chairs the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Skills Award Task Group. Follow her on Twitter here.

Hashtag politics: seven top tips for civil servants using social media

Stephen Jeffares

The Commons public administration select committee’s call for open policymaking, published on 3 June, envisages civil servants as the guardians of wiki-style policymaking, with public sector leaders embracing digital technologies and using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

But these social media platforms can be a double-edged sword for policymakers.

Never has it been easier, or cheaper, to launch or consult on new policy initiatives. The possibility of creating a hashtag and reaching both the influencers and the wider public is seductive. Yet it can also result in something close to a Dr Frankenstein scenario: you have created a hashtag, and it will destroy you!

Once unleashed, public, tag-able, searchable and unique policy ideas are vulnerable to all kinds of comment, including critique and derision. Keeping abreast of what is being said about your initiative, activity or organisation can be difficult when you are busy with everyday matters, as former BBC director general George Entwistle found to his cost.

The rise of social media has brought with it a goldrush, with numerous companies and social media consultants offering “social listening” technologies, related advice and services. These tools can be configured to alert organisations of both positive and negative discussion of their initiatives, opening up opportunities to capitalise or take action. Metrics are provided to show the most influential users discussing an initiative, and who should be approached to help spread the message.

New tags are created daily – #compassionatecare, #MyPCC, #Greendeal, and, a personal favourite, the probation-related tag #transformingrehabilitation, which takes up 20% of a tweet.

Succeeding at hashtag politics is challenging. Here are my top tips:

1. Acknowledge the craft

In the battle to disseminate a message in a competitive environment with multiple channels and information overload, the creation of effective labels – such as hashtags – for policy ideas is part of the craft of policymaking.

2. Expect and accept some loss of creative control

Since its inception, big society has been frequently criticised as nebulous and vague. However, vagueness is part of the appeal of a policy idea. Its very nebulousness is what draws people to it and allows them the important opportunity to attach their own meanings and demands. Organic labels, hashtags and alternative meanings will arise. Take, for example, the Home Office’s #MyPCC, which was usurped by #PCC.

3. Listen

Invest modest resources in social media monitoring software, but, more importantly, recruit and train policy researchers to integrate new forms of data into their work.

4. Diversify

Hashtag policymaking is more about creating memorable policy ideas than explicit hashtags. Following one hashtag or set of users is not enough. You have to adapt to changing language to be able to capture the conversation.

5. Peek under the hood now and again

Do not rely solely on automated analytics, such as sentiment monitors, when making decisions.

6. Engage more and broadcast less

Be prepared to engage in informal discussion with citizens, without the need for approval from above. Waiting three days for sign off to reply to a Facebook comment is not engagement.

7. Be prepared to let go

Every day your initiative is online, accept that attachment to policy ideas is gradual, cumulative and eventually disruptive. Learn to recognise when the policy idea is entering its final stages, be prepared to disinvest, and do not mislead your collaborators.

This post was originally published by the Guardian Public Leaders’ Network.

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Stephen Jeffares is a Roberts Fellow in the College of Social Sciences based in INLOGOV, Institute for Local Government Studies.  His fellowship focuses on the role of ideas in the policy process and implications for methods.  He is a specialist in Q methodology and other innovative methods to inform policy analysis.

Why sharing is the future: A public administration perspective on the mesh economy

Tutik Rachmawati

It is common knowledge that in the study of public administration, initiatives for improving the performance of public organisations are very much borrowed from the private sector. In 1993, Osborne & Gaebler, for instance, established ten principles to reach entrepreneurial government. They offered ways to develop entrepreneurial, flexible and outcome-oriented organisations in the public sector.

Furthermore, the concept of New Public Management, which emphasises economic rationalism and private sector management practices, has also been adapted across nations. The implementation of information technology into business practices has also driven public organisations to launch e-government to transform the way they engage with citizens and business. Recently, under the ideas of entrepreneurial government and New Public Management, the duties of many public organisations have been commissioned to other parties, including in the private sector.

It can be argued that the principles of Mesh Economy can appropriately be applied in public organisation for several reasons. Firstly, the principle of partnership and other parties’ involvement. Strategic Commissioning in public organisations stresses the importance of partnership and involvement of other parties. It aims at reducing overlap and duplications, and further creating scope for efficiency and savings. This is an idea that is very much in line with Mesh Economy which highlights business operation through a collaborative approach to providing organisations with better ideas that then allows customers to receive flexible and more sustainable products and services.

Secondly, the principle of sustainability and the global anti-waste approach in the Mesh Economy is similar to the principle of sustainable management of services and assets demands in strategic commissioning. Strategic commissioning focuses on the quality and value for money – not necessarily at lowest cost- so that more is achieved with less in an environmentally friendly way.

Thirdly, consumer driven free economy in the Mesh Business is similar with co-production in strategic commissioning of public organisations. While the Mesh Business sends people recommendations and/or advertising messages based on their personal behavioural patterns, co-production service users know things that many professionals do not know – hence services can be produced more effectively. Co–production conceives the services users as active asset-holders rather than passive consumers. Therefore, both Mesh Business and Co-production empower and build trust in customers/consumers. Customers in Mesh Business build trust by disclosing personal behavioural patterns, while in co-production users, citizens, partners and voters build trust in the work of the public sector including the risks of losing the shared assets with other parties.

Sharing is the future business of private sector, and it will also be the future of public organisations as both share common characteristics. However, there are lessons to be learned for public organisations from the Mesh Economy.

Firstly, the mesh economy is based on strong relations with customers, as it is through more frequent contact with customers that a greater flow of customer data is produced which at the end makes the business successful by making more profit. Even though profit is not the raison d’être of the public organisation, it is still valid to have good relations with citizens. Public organisations also generate large amounts of citizen data which eventually will be useful to perfect the public organisation’s performance in providing public services. Public organisations need to learn from the Mesh Business on how to utilize the ongoing connections with citizens and to use citizen data constructively to serve citizens better.

Secondly is the issue of managing resources efficiently. The rule of thumb in mesh business is ‘ownership is out, access is in’. It means that mesh business can and does deploy assets they don’t own but can easily access. It is rightful for public organisations to apply this as the potential for efficiency and saving a huge amount of money is high. Learning from this will enable public organisations to channel their budget for the betterment of public service provision. Furthermore, as public organisations, governments and local governments suffer from financial burden, the need to share rather than buy and own is more appropriate.

Thirdly, public organisations will need to learn from the mesh economy on how to design a public services that is more resilient so that they could last longer even after multiple uses by different members or users. Every public service needs to meet the four criteria of mesh products: it should be durable (well-built and safe), flexible (accommodates different users), repairable (has standardized parts that allow easy repair) and sustainable (reduces natural resources waste).

To conclude, sharing as the core concept of the mesh economy should be applied in public organisation settings. Its core principles are needed for public entrepreneurs to level up public organisations’ performance.

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Tutik Rachmawati is a PhD student at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, and is a Japan-Indonesian Presidential Scholarship Awardee. She has research interests in public entrepreneurship and local economic development.

This post previously appeared on Puzzle Minds.

Council officers as local democracy makers

Philip Lloyd-Williams

To what extent does the lack of training and development of senior officers at local councils impact on the practice of local democracy? Can ‘democracy’ even be taught? It’s a question that has been with me for a while. I have no answers but can offer some personal reflections following research I undertook into the role of senior officers in managing local democracy. From personal knowledge I knew that Chief Executives and Directors of local authorities advised, negotiated and shaped not only the delivery of services but also how citizens engaged with their Councils. As a result, I saw them as what I termed Local Democracy Makers as they held a position of influence and authority which could impact democratic practice – so I decided to have a more detailed look.

Much has changed in local government in the last 20 years. We now have Executive decision making structures with fewer Councillors being involved as decision makers. Commonly services are delivered in partnership or from commissioned providers, often on long term contracts with opaque accountability arrangements. However, what is often mentioned when local government is discussed is the challenge of engaging and connecting with communities, inspiring interest in elections, bucking the trend of low turnout for voting and the senior age profile of Councillors. Securing the democratic mandate and involvement (however it is defined or described) is still considered an integral part of local government. Thus, local democracy is of importance and how it is then shaped, moulded and operated matters. The senior officers as Local Democracy Makers have a powerful and authoritative position in the organisation of local government to have a material bearing on the way local democracy is discharged locally.

Senior officers are well versed and often highly trained in management but there is little training or teaching in the management of political relationships or local Democracy. It’s mostly ‘on the job training’ which in turn influences how the senior officers behave as Local Democracy Makers. I interviewed and observed senior officers interacting with the politicians and I discovered that, unsurprisingly, their own world view of politics, localities and democracy would inform how they enabled and restricted local democracy. Often, the heavy hand of regulation, managerialism, audit and the management of risk would result in a narrow view of how local decisions should be informed by local people. Other elites had several deep political scars that made them suspicious of allowing a more deliberative democratic practice. For certain, the push to achieve a good ranking in performance, financial management and consumer reputation has the effect of marginalising the place of local democracy. Perhaps such findings are to be expected, but when they have an impact on how democracy is practiced it becomes more acute.

So, are we doing enough to raise awareness of the impacts of management arrangements on democratic practice? My research tells me that not enough discussion, debate and possibly training is given to the principles of local democracy in the management and administration of local services. It suggests to me that too much emphasis is placed on the ‘management’ abilities and not enough of the importance of democracy. Like it or not, senior officers in local government act as Local Democracy Makers and we need to actively support them in this role.

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Philip’s doctorate from the University of Aston was on the role of local authority officials as ‘makers of democracy’. His career has given him extensive experience of working with elected representatives in local government as a Solicitor. He is an INLOGOV Associate Member and contributes to its Management Development programmes.

Reflections on the paradoxes of public sector leadership development

Ian Briggs

The question of how we play a part in encouraging future generations of leaders has never really been more acute than at the present. The question has been around for quite a while now but perhaps never really satisfactorily answered. Some years ago a PhD study looked at the career paths of Local Authority Chief Executives and the startling conclusion appeared to be that actually wanting to be a chief executive was the only real common feature.

Clearly having the drive and the will as well as a fair modicum of talent was also pretty crucial, but how do talented people accrue the required characteristics needed to get into those positions? How do people learn to be good leaders and from where do they form their ideas about what constitutes an effective leader? Higher education clearly plays a key role in supporting this, and those that sponsor career-minded individuals to study expect us to support the way they form their ideas about effective leadership – but we have a problem.

Some pretty uncomfortable issues are in the ether arising from the Mid Staffordshire Hospital debacle, where managers may have been more focused upon targets and less attenuated to the needs of patients; and from some councils who feel that top managers are an expense and offer little value added to the way that complex organisations function. So the whole question is: what attributes do we need to acquire in order to be able to sit at (or close to) the top of public sector organisations in the future?

We are on the eve of commencing a new round of the Local Government Graduate Programme and we should remember the LGA in their wisdom resource this programme to reinforce the supply side of the equation to add to the talent pool – and very laudable it is. Yet it is easy to detect that these younger individuals as well as some of our postgraduate students are often a bit reluctant to play by the rules that the current power elite want to impose on them.

This can be contrasted with an event at a recent gathering of senior leaders where the issue of ‘networking’ became the hot topic of conversation. Being in contact with a group of likeminded, like placed people with similar challenges and problems was near universally reported to be a key feature of their role. They were asked to explore this in a little more depth and offer the criteria they would apply to the question of “what does having a good network actually look like”? The top three were:

1. Something that looked a little like benchmarking – are my ideas and interpretations of the problems the same as others who occupy similar roles, a kind of support for innovative thinking
2. Gaining early warning of emergent good and innovative practice (mildly surprising that was second)
3. Most interesting was the potential advance warning of possible career openings if I ‘fell foul’ of my current employer!

I am not suggesting that this was a totally representative group and that everyone identified with this last point. It did cause the most debate and even alarm in some, but where those with the most positional power are acting so defensively and needing others who would help them get out of a career fix suggests that younger talented people have some sizable hurdles to overcome if they are to be seen and valued as potential successors. The group were challenged as to who had potential future leaders in their networks and few immediately reported that they had – they did see it as a vital part of their roles to talent spot, but what kind of talent were they spotting? Most saw this issue as something that was separate to having a good and effective network and more a part of the job of being at the top!

All this suggests that we are facing a clash between an increasingly defensive power elite with a new generation who are more reluctant to accept the old traditions and thinking. This presents teachers and facilitators of advanced leadership development with a big problem. Should we focus our study on today’s senior people to try and distil out a model that shows clearly what is needed to perform at the top, or should we look to develop more sophisticated approaches to support development where the talented form their own models of effective leadership to prepare them for when they are ready to enter the realms of the new power elite? We favour the latter approach and whilst it is important to offer key messages from the history of leadership research, space must also be found for these proto leaders to shape their own thinking and become aware of what drives them to seek greater responsibility and accountability.

For the last two years we have asked groups of postgraduate students to explore their personal implicit models of being an effective leader. We have offered them a template from wider research into implicit leadership theory (ILT) and some interesting findings are emerging. At the top of the list is a powerful rejection of forming ‘power distance’ between them and others, they are possibly more comfortable with uncertainty and they seek to be part of something that is more collective and socially shared than just wishing to be part of a like minded group. If this is true then we can perhaps be comforted by the fact that future leaders may start from a position of wishing to be embedded within an organisation rather than sitting on top of it and that they could create new organisational forms that are more fluid and representative of wider society. If so, this can only be good for our public services and our traditions of local democracy.

Let’s hope this is true and it comes to pass that future leaders will be significantly different from the leaders we currently have – however please note we still have some fantastic leaders today – not all are putting energy into defending their roles, but the reported level of pressure we are placing on top leaders is unsustainable and something is bound to break. Can we as developers, teachers and facilitators help to overcome the very real pressures of being socialised into a role that causes people to perform outside of their own values system? If we can, then we must help those who are on career trajectories to the top to resist the processes of socialisation to become the new old guard.

In the 1960’s, Alvin Toffler took a leaf from the works of Isaac Asimov and suggested that there is a ‘ghost in every machine’ – organisations are so complex and powerful that they can twist people to behave in a way that they have vowed never to do. The story centres around a young employee in a fictitious future organisation who is treated miserably by his boss, he is psychologically abused and bullied and vows that if he ever achieves promotion he will not behave in the same way as a boss himself. Yes, you have guessed right – he does become his boss in time.

A more detailed account of trends in leadership learning can be found in Briggs, I and Raine, J.W. (forthcoming) Rethinking leadership learning in postgraduate public management programmes. Teaching and Public Administration.

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

To what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse?

Ian Briggs

By 1830 the East India Company had grown in size and influence to be a government in all but name. It had control over a population that was at the time ten times greater than that covered by the British Crown and amounted in economic terms to over one third of the then British economy. The power of the company was such that it has led to a deep seated suspicion of the profit motive in the private sector and individuals that has remained in national and local government ever since – whichever political party has been in control.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty first century concern over public expenditure and a fear that ‘our’ money is not being spent with our interests at heart remains. The thousands of FOI requests now received by governmental organisations from both individuals and organised groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance may seem like an unreasonable challenge to the primacy of those who are our elected representatives and their agents. Yet, as seemingly no stone is being unturned in the search to lift the UK economy from recession, the question remains: what is reasonable profit to make from public sector activity?

The government is increasingly convinced that contracting with commercial and voluntary providers with payment by results (PBR) is a mechanism to ensure that positive social outcomes are achieved through stimulating the motivation to succeed. This has now extended to the Probation Service where providers will increase their revenue through meeting or exceeding performance targets. While it is clear the new innovative approaches such as this needs to be tried, what is unclear in this process is the means by which we decide whether the targets have been achieved or not, who has the power to decide, and what access to information they have.

The nature of contracts between governments and commercial providers can be said to be at best murky and if history is a good teacher then we should remain sceptical of the means by which performance is judged. To evidence this we have to look at the alternative method – that is where there are penalties within contracts that limit profitability to a commercial provider. For any regular rail traveller this game is all too readily apparent. Careful management of standing time at stations – often for what are termed operational reasons – can be seen as a means of ensuring that there is conformity with published performance expectations. However, for one regular journey I take, if the train were to leave a station at its published time it would have covered the distance from its last stop in a time that would mean speeds far in excess of that permitted for the line. Such quirks in the timetable exist to ensure that this train is never late at its destination and thus distorting the annually published performance report.

So if creative methods are employed to circumvent disincentives that detract from profitability, should we be equally sceptical of achieving positive results with a profit incentive that will always work in the public interest? In the same way that disincentives could have issues within power imbalances and transparency in contracting, so might profit maximisation incentives. No matter how robust a contact is, it will always bring into conflict differing interests and have certain power imbalances built in. Undoubtedly what the East India Company achieved was as much in the interests of the British Government of the time as it was in the interests of those who invested in it, but if we are to offer increased potential profitability to commercial interests through PBR mechanisms we have to be ready to have robust and open debate as to how those payments are justified.

For the Probation Service, social outcomes are at the very centre of its purpose – reducing recidivism is crucial to society but performance contracting is complex. We should perhaps remember the experience of the East India Company, becoming such a monster power at the same time that nearly all Transportation to the Colonies was undertaken on behalf of Government by private contractors. Those very contractors were well rewarded but once out of sight of land they behaved in a fashion that was more about maximising their income than meeting the contractual need established by Government. This was exemplified by the selling off of unused victuals for the journey to increase income – for them the answer was easy – starve the convicts!

So – to what extent is it reasonable to profit from the public purse? And are we putting in place a robust enough mechanism to ensure the interests of civil society are maintained?

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Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies.  He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.