I’ve really enjoyed reading the University of Birmingham’s report on the 21st Century Public Servant which articulates 10 characteristics that the successful, modern Public Servant requires:
The 21st Century Public Servant…
- is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles
- engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise
- is recruited and rewarded for generic skills as well as technical expertise
- builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services
- combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality
- is rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of perma-austerity
- needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling
- rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leading
- is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity
- reflects on practice and learns from that of others
This is a pretty sound description of what’s required in order for public sector individuals and organisations to succeed, although #2 feels very fluffy, and #9 smacks of costly parochialism. I also struggle with #5 – the ‘ethos of publicness’ – and am not really sure that a public vs. private ethos is still valid. If you work in the private sector, you need to provide value for your customers to survive. If you work in the public sector, you need to provide value for your customers to ensure that public funds are not wasted. In other words, work is all about adding value for customers, irrespective of which sector you operate in.
Partnershipability – the most important trait for the 21st Century Public Servant
The aspect that interests me most – and which is absent from the report – cuts across #5, #6 and #8 – and is a leadership trait that I like to refer to as ‘Partnershipability’. Over the last decade, the most effective public sector organisations are those that have entered into successful partnerships with other public, private and third sector organisations, to unlock economies of scale; reduced duplication in back and front office operations; and ultimately improved customer service at lower cost.
The key to this success has been the values and behaviours of leaders in the prospective partnership organisations. The leaders who have achieved complex but rewarding transformation have demonstrated trust, courage, deep relationship building skills, perseverance, vision and a willingness to jump into the unknown. I do not use the word ‘courage’ lightly – senior leaders exploring partnership options will be fully aware that they are in the most precarious positions if any form of merger is to proceed.
An agile approach whereby possibilities for collaboration are explored iteratively, and ideas without legs are killed off quickly, has also enabled resource to be directed at more promising options.
Where efforts to collaborate have fallen down, the cause – which is often absent from any lessons learned document – often boils down to ‘relationship issues‘ at the senior level.
So if you want to take advantage of Partnership Based Transformation (PBT), you could do worse than to identify and harness those within your organisation with crucial Partnershipability skills and experience – a key trait for the 21st Century Public Servant.
Of course, not all leaders posses Partnershipability, and any PBT programme would do well to focus on early and sustained relationship building at the top of the respective organisations, and then throughout the organisational tiers as the arrangement develops.
I’d love to hear your views on the importance and prevalence of Partnershipability.