The 21st century public servant

It was Niccolo Machiavelli who stated that “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times”. So how can democratic institutions successfully solve 21st Century challenges?  This will not only require a re-design of those institutions, integrating 21st Century practices, but will also necessitate public leaders to change their “conduct with the times”. It is for those reasons that GovLab is working towards establishing GovLab Academy (also check out Gov 3.0  curriculum) to train the next generation public leaders.  But what should be the new skill-set for public servants?

In an attempt to engage the public around those questions,  the Department of Premier and Cabinet of the Australian State Government of Victoria has released a discussion paper on the 21st century public servant.(@gov2vic). The purpose of this paper : “is to provoke discussion about the range of skills and capabilities the contemporary public servant needs to respond to new challenges and to serve the government of the day and the community. The paper draws together a number of ideas and concepts—in some cases theoretical—using both academic literature and work under way in other jurisdictions. It provides a useful starting point to ask how much the environment and nature of work is changing, and what the practical implications may be to shape the public service for the future.”

The report starts with the six external megatrends that changes society in Victoria but with general applicability. Especially the last two driver seems important across governments worldwide:

“5. Virtually here: Digital media and new technology can be both enablers and disruptors of business models, capabilities and delivery channels. They can support the creation of new connections between individuals, communities and institutions, improve access and delivery of services and enable the flow of information and access to data. Four major technology trends will impact government and the public service: the uptake of smart devices; the popularity of social media; the emergence of cloud computing; and the rise of big data and analytics.

6. Great expectations: Consumer, social and demographic trends are driving the community’s  expectation for personalised services that meet people’s individual needs and that 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. “

Perhaps of more interest, in addition to the external trends, the report lists a few drivers that affect public administration and the way we govern:

“1. A market for the delivery of public goods: The public service is no longer the sole provider of policies, programs and services. Today’s public service is increasingly commissioning and contracting out service delivery to the private and community sectors. Gary Sturgess, (ANZSOG Chair of Public Service Delivery) has used the term the public sector economy to describe this mix of public, private and third sector providers supplying services to government and directly to the public…

2. Increased competition in the development of public policy: The public service no longer has a monopoly on providing policy advice to government, with growth in the contestability of policy advice provided by other advisers such as ministerial staff, think tanks, lobby groups, the media and research institutes. The UK has taken this one step further with the creation of a centrally resourced Policy Contestability Fund for ministers’ use to seek policy advice from beyond Whitehall.

3. The co-production of government services: Co-production enables citizens to design and deliver activities with government to meet their needs and deliver better results. It requires a reciprocal relationship between public servants and people using services—for example, greater patient involvement in planning their health treatment.

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 creates challenges for government and the public service, requiring them to reassess their structures, speed, work practices and the way in which they engage with citizens. “

Given these changes and drivers, what should be the roles of  the 21st century public service? The report lists a few including (using a UK Demos report as outline):

  • “Collaboration: relationships between people and organisations
  • Communication: with an emphasis on digital media modes
  • Commercialisation: getting the best value from public, private and community sectors
  • Control: ensuring legal, financial and democratic standards are met”.

To achieve these goals well, the report suggests the acquisition of the following skill sets:


The report ends with a few questions related to the role and skills of public servant in a 21st Century. The bibliography will be of interest and use to anyone who wants to get a sense of the literature related to the application of Machiavelli’s adagium to how we change  the  conduct of public servants with the times”…

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3 Responses to “The 21st century public servant”

  1. Shahid Hussain Raja October 8, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    As the public sector has to now work under increased
    scrutiny of media, civil society organizations, judiciary and the political
    elite, this new landscape poses the following six challenges to a civil servant
    in any country;

    1. Challenge of effective service delivery from the
    citizens and the civil society organizations who are not much bothered about cost effectiveness or

    2. Challenge of transparency from the social and
    electronic media eager for a scoop relating to any aspect of governance-service
    delivery, transparency, cost effectiveness, procedural lapses etc

    3. Challenge of accountability emanating from the courts
    who are less worried about service delivery and more about legal compliance

    4. Challenge of efficiency from the state which is
    hard-pressed for resources in the face of rising demand for funds from
    different stakeholders

    5. Challenge of sharing power coming from the political
    elite who are not accountable to the courts for infringement of legal code or
    procedural niceties

    6. Challenge of attracting the best and retaining the
    skilled through proper incentives and rewards system in the face of better
    terms and conditions and power and prestige offered by the private sector

    All the above six challenges are not mutually
    exclusive; rather they are mutually reinforcing ones, taking new shapes and
    gathering momentum in the days to come. Secondly they are not new challenge; it
    is only their new vigour and their synergetic effect which has given them
    urgency and potency demanding appropriate response from the civil servants at
    the personal as well as at institutional and organizational level.


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