The 21st century public servant

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 piece describes some of the key drivers of change we identified, most of which are relevant across a range of contexts, though their impact will be shaped by local political and economic environments.

A key external driver is the economic shift from the West to the East and the North to the South with continued economic growth in China and India, followed by the expanding economies of South America and Africa. The prospect of an ‘Asian Century’ creates new opportunities for Australia in the region but also places demands on Australian policymakers to hear different voices in debates about the role of the state, the values underpinning policy choices, and the role of public administration.

Australia’s ageing population creates challenges for service demands in healthcare and aged care, levels of workforce participation and the adequacy of retirement savings. Opportunities arise through tapered retirement models and a greater focus on positive ageing.

Digital media and new technology are both enablers and disruptors of business models, capabilities and delivery channels. The uptake of smart devices; the popularity of social media; the emergence of cloud computing; and the rise of big data and analytics each have the potential to change significantly how government and public services operate.

Consumer, social and demographic trends are driving the community’s expectation for personalised services that meet individual needs which are delivered seamlessly and cheaply. This has significant implications for service delivery in health and education as well as how the public service uses technology to provide access to services, transactions and information.

Internal drivers of change

Internal drivers are also changing what the public service does and how it works with implications for the skills and capabilities of public servants. Peter Shergold, the former head of Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, identified four drivers, these as:

1. A market for the delivery of public goods

Today’s public service is increasingly commissioning and contracting out service delivery to the private and community sectors.

2. Increased competition in the development of public policy

Government’s now regularly seek and receive policy advice from external bodies including think tanks, lobby groups, the media and research institutes.

3. The co-production of government services

This requires a reciprocal relationship between public servants and people using services on the basis that greater user involvement in design and delivery will achieve better results.

4. The reinvigoration of democratic engagement

Digital media provides an opportunity for increased engagement, reshaping how communities find and engage each other on political and social issues. This challenges government and public services to develop appropriate structures, work practices and approaches to citizens.

Given current fiscal constraints, it is unlikely that incremental change will be sufficient. Rather what is required is a bolder approach to rethinking and redesigning public services drawing on the experience of other sectors and services. It also means being attentive to the values that underpin the 21st century public service as well as the skills and capabilities of future public servants.

Co-authored with Helen Sullivan, Director Melbourne School of Government

Originally published on the blog of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham