I recently went along to a Masterclass hosted by SOLACE (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives), a representative body for CEs and senior managers working in the UK’s public sector and Improvement Service, an organisation that helps local authorities in Scotland develop in various ways through advisory and consultation services. The Masterclass focused on two pieces of research: Talent Management in Scotland’s Public Services, a collaborative effort between Edinburgh Napier University, University of the West of Scotland and Improvement Service and The 21st Century Public Servant carried out by Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan, both out of University of Birmingham. The main purpose of the day was to discuss The 21st Century Public Servant research but framed in recruitment and talent management issues in Scottish public services, which I think is an urgent discussion. It is worth noting the research detailed here has a focus on local government and service delivery but I am approaching it more generally and more from a policy delivery place.
Dr Bobby Mackie from University of the West of Scotland introduced the current talent management research and asked some important questions: Who has the skills to really work with communities? What are the key skill sets we need to think about around capacity and capability building? How are we recruiting or building skill in the existing workforce to help communities achieve their own outcomes? And with regard to talent management, (which I would argue is not being done anywhere in Scottish public services- if I’m wrong please get in touch), there might be some initial work to do in defining what talent management means in this conversation. I was surprised to find out from other delegates at my table that talent management to them means managing the growth or building of talent at a managerial level where I think of it more as knowing what talent lies in your organisation, where it is, who it is attached to and that the way the organisation works means it’s flexible and agile enough to draw talent in to different areas or projects when it is needed. Obviously my view of talent management is loaded. I suspect HR bods and the unions would have some interesting input and the very incremental way this would need to build in existing organizational structures would mean glacial speed which increases the risk of nothing happening over time. But if it is generally seen as building talent just at managerial levels, then that is loaded too. This talent management research is in early days and the associated survey and early findings will be disseminated in spring 2016. Though there have not yet been very many survey submissions, some early interesting things coming through are a growth in psychometric testing and the desire for improved collaboration but big question marks around who would lead talent management collaboration. From what I understand there is no web presence for this research and no publicly available link to the survey, however, if you are interested in taking part or knowing more you can contact Dr Bobby Mackie directly.
On to discussing The 21st Century Public Servant research. The research was carried out using a mix of literature review and interviews with 40 people involved in supporting and delivering public services, including people who work outside the public sector, which I think is so important because it acknowledges public services are delivered by third and commercial sectors too. The research surfaced 10 characteristics that could make up a public servant in the 21st century but I’m only going to focus on 2 of them: the modern public servant ‘engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise’ and they should ‘reflect on practice and learns from that of others.’ The full list of characteristics can be found in the full report linked above.
Having worked for many years with government and local government on building digital skills in the workforce, these two characteristics are so important and resonate with me a lot. They are both deeply human issues and they are both linked to the digital skills that are very much lacking overall in the public service workforce.
Characteristic 2: The 21st century public servant engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise
The public servant with these characteristics will understand citizens are very knowledgeable about the policy area they are interested in and that they increasingly push back on ‘professional expertise.’ Government is swimming in policy generalists- it’s a great way to move resources around in austere times or because people are going through a fast track programme. However, moving people around very frequently without talent management as the motivation or reason is very disruptive to collaborative relationships and to works in progress. Of course technology could minimize disruption and help build relationships, for example to manage knowledge and information and create a collaborative space through which citizens and professionals can interact and share, but the use of collaboration spaces in this way is definitely not the norm.
Engaging and working alongside citizens in a meaningful way will also be a skill of the modern public servant but this skill seems to be oddly lacking overall in organisations. As one young civil servant told me recently, ‘It’s been trained out of us.’ From impenetrable language in consultations, documents and forms to defensive circular speak down at the town hall meeting and dull as dishwater broadcast only social media, public servants aren’t generally rocking the approachable look. One research interviewee said it all: ‘It’s about being human, that’s what we need to do.’ Whether online or face to face, the risk of reputational damage and citizen mistrust and disinterest is increased with the inability of our public servants to just be human. The work public servants do affects people’s lives. The 21st century public servant knows that and will prioritise coproduction recognising the negative financial implications of not doing so are high with the potential for creating cack-handed services and policies that need to be axed or redesigned later on. I’d argue not collaborating is also unethical.
Characteristic 10: The 21st Century public servant reflects on practice and learns from that of others
A modern public servant will have the time and space to carry out reflective practice and to be more emotionally resilient, more thoughtful about the way they work and more agile. They will also have the skills to manage their online identities, to self direct their learning and collaboration using social media and get out to the wider world to learn different ways of working. While a lot of the barriers around these things not being common practice are organizational, the inability to manage the volume of information from social media and to work out loud with an individual voice were highlighted by interviewees as individual challenges. These things can be learned but, as the research found, teaching the theory in a classroom setting is not useful. People should be free to connect and learn from each other and they should have the digital skills to allow them to facilitate parts of those relationships. While digital isn’t a panacea, it could go some way to help staff learn in time efficient ways if they are guided, mentored and developed by others. Talking to someone for an hour about the beauty of Twitter for research and collaboration is not the same as showing them in a way that is relevant to them. Public services hemorrhage money on farkakte social media training that sees absolutely no results. Networking people to learn sector appropriate methods, techniques and skills to develop a person and then in turn to benefit organizational output which ultimately positively impacts citizens is the ideal. We can live in hope.
The entire 21st Century Public Servant research document is beautifully written but I want to end with a quote from the preface, written by Mark Rodgers, Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council:
‘We do not exist in our own right. The political leadership is elected and the officers are appointed by the democratically mandated. We are all here to serve others- and that is the only kind of power we are entitled to wield: we rule only in order to serve. All, however, should have service- implicit or explicit- at the heart of them. If we take this as our starting point, then we can indeed aspire to rule from the Town Hall- because our authority to lead comes from the community itself which we have vowed to serve.’