Reimagining public service leadership

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  • Published Date: 24 January 2020

Public servants of the future will be required to play different roles and demonstrate a new set of skills and capabilities as citizens’ needs and expectations change. Two visiting experts from the University of Birmingham - Dr Catherine Mangan, Director of Public Services Academy and the Institute for Local Government Studies, and Professor Catherine Needham, Professor of Public Policy and Public Management - cast their minds towards the public servant of the future at ANZSOG Thought Leadership seminars in Sydney, Wellington and Perth.

In a volatile, complex and fast-changing world, public servants of the future will inevitably be required to play different roles and demonstrate new skills and capabilities.

Two international experts in forecasting the world that will face public managers, Dr Catherine Mangan and Professor Catherine Needham, discussed the steps needed to negotiate the future, predicting changes in the way we think and lead, high levels of data literacy and better ways to communicate with a diverse and digitally demanding population.

The pair has researched public servants of the 21st century, looking at the changing context of public services, including citizens’ expectations, demands and attitudes, and increasing fiscal austerity. Their research is being adopted by many local governments in the UK who are trying to shift towards more innovative, citizen-focused ways of working.

The two speakers said that there were many similarities between the UK and Australia/New Zealand – in terms of the challenges they faced and the opportunities arising from technology - but one of the main differences was that the UK’s climate of “permanent austerity” in the public service had not been replicated here.

Despite this, many agencies in Australia and New Zealand struggled with not having enough money to tackle complex issues, such as long-term health conditions and entrenched social problems.

What skills will the future public service require?

Addressing these challenges will require a different style of leadership, new collaborative ways of working and a wider range of skills.

“We argue that people are going to need different skills in public services, so public services will be more about being relational, about being empathetic, about having good communication skills and about being able to take risks,” Professor Needham said.

“We need people with different roles, we need more entrepreneurs in public services, we need more navigators and system weavers, people who can put things together in creative sorts of ways.”

This meant it was important to offer a variety of career paths, recognise talent located outside the public service, and understand that not everyone wanted to spend their whole lives working as public servants.

“They want to contribute to public service but in different organisations and we want to equip them with portable skills that allow them to work in different sorts of ways,” she said.

Organisational structures also needed to change to create greater agility and flexibility, and enable people to work beyond bureaucratic silos. The impact on citizens would be less bureaucracy, fewer points of contact with the public service and a more service user-focused approach.

To achieve this, public services needed to have less of a focus on organisational and management hierarchies and more on working within and outside the organisation to make things happen. This would need a more open approach to leadership and internal discussions.

Dr Mangan said that the research also looked at enablers to support public servants working in these different types of ways.

“We need different leaders for public service in the future, so moving away from the hero ‘Mr Fixit’ leader of the past, one person who knows the answer,” she said.

“We need people who are able to act with a bit of humility, who are able to disperse and empower others so they can act as leaders within the system. The issues society is facing are very complex and there is no one single answer – in fact we don’t often know what the questions are – so we need leaders who are able to work in this much more dispersed way.”

She said public servants needed time and space to reflect and learn from their practice, and to create peer networks to provide support and share learning.

“We need public servants who can combine the sort of ethics of a public service with commerciality. Public servants that can encapsulate and embody that real public service ethos and want to do good within the system,” Dr Mangan said.

“A lot of the public servants we spoke to talked about trying to work in different ways but were being held back by the 19th century style organisations that they’re working in.”

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Thought Leadership and executive education courses at the ANZSOG workshops page.