21st Century public service – is it a thing?

Our work is often about helping public services relate to people in simpler ways.

We might help them build trust and use the trust to provide wider forms of civic good. We might help them empower more people to communicate online – shift power relationships from gatekeepers at the top to park keepers at the bottom.

An anonymous “senior civil servant” wrote on the Guardian website today:

Part of the problem in the civil service is that so many decisions are escalated to senior levels. Unless we can create a working environment where staff at every level are empowered and enabled to make decisions without being micromanaged from above, nothing will change. Creating that culture is one of our biggest challenges.

I argue often that our most successful work with public servants happens when a number of things are present:

  • The people trying to achieve something tend to behave more like citizens than public servants on one side or customers on the other.
  • You go with  the grain of the network – following lines of trust to make things happen rather than creating layers of process.
  • You recognise that public service can happen in all sorts of places – it’s not the preserve of public servants to provide it (indeed some public service is stifled by bureacracy rather than enabled by it).

I’m confident that public service in the 21st century can be different from the 20th century and that public service will need to change.  In basic terms the new leaders of the public sector are becoming less patient with rules that mean that at work you have less flexibility than you do out of work.

So what might shift?

  • More flexible structures. I asked a few years ago why doesn’t government have reservists? But more flexibility will need to follow from  a smaller state where much of what gets done is a negotiation between formal government and the things people make happen themselves.  Officers who can’t embrace that negotiation as a positive thing will – I think – find themselves confused about what they are there for and fail to achieve better things in our communities.
  • Driven by values (again) rather than process.  At Podnosh we check what we’re doing against our values which are simply :  Make Things Better, Think, Give a S**t.  This does mean we need to behave in ways that support that – so being confident about values and then skilled at translating those into how we  behave will make public service a more satisfying place for people to work and more importantly could make it easier for people to work with public servants.
  • People need to be encouraged/permitted to develop real relationships. Valuing connections is not just good for work – it’s good for us. We work with a lot of third sector organisations and the best achieve what they do with very sincere human relationships.  It’s easier to help someone when they know you’ve made the effort to get to know each other.  To much money saving in public service is designed to strip the relationship out and replace it with manageable, insure-able process.

For more thinking on this Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan and colleagues at Birmingham University are doing some work on 21st century Public Service – .  Helen Dickinson writes:

Our research found that public servants urgently need to learn commissioning and decommissioning skills alongside the ability to challenge the status quo, be willing to innovate, understand risk (and know who holds the risk in a particular situation), and stimulate and manage behaviour change. The ability to be a fixer and facilitator is also seen as a fundamental component of public service roles, as well as the ability to deliver, particularly during difficult times.

Oh and one final quality:  transparency and openness.  To that end we’ve been working with Helen and her team.

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