New book: Public Service workforce of the future

It has been a number of years in the making but our (me, Catherine Needham, Catherine Mangan & Helen Sullivan) edited book Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce has just been published by Springer.   This book investigates the professional needs and training requirements of an ever-changing public service workforce in Australia and the United Kingdom. It explores the nature of future roles, the types of skills and competencies that will be required and how organisations might recruit, train and develop public servants for these roles.

The book draws on leading international research and practitioners also make recommendations for how local organisations can equip future public servants with the skills and professional capacities for these shifting professional demands, and the skillsets they will require.

Drawing on ideas that have been developed in the Australian and UK context, the book delves into the major themes involved in re-imagining the public service workforce and the various forms of capacities and capabilities that this entails. It then explores delivery of this future vision, and its implications in terms of development, recruitment and strategy.

Stay tuned for news of a book launch!


Commissioning bootcamp

At the newly launched Public Service Research Group one of the things we have been busy thinking about is the development of executive education and professional development courses.  We see this as an important part of the way that we go about translating research evidence in a way that is useful to practice, promoting the impact of our work and supporting those who work in public service contexts.

All of our programs are intellectually-stimulating and delivered in a highly interactive format to ensure that learning is applicable within the workplace.  Our programs can be delivered as intensive subjects over a few days or can be tailored to be ongoing programs (in an action learning form, for example) where participants are supported as they tackle real-life issues.  Programs can be delivered as residential, campus-based or work-place based in any area of Australia and overseas.  We work to an approach that encourages participants to bring their expertise to the learning experience and to combine this with that of others and our facilitators to generate actionable solutions.

We have just advertised the latest of these – a commissioning bootcamp – which is a two day programme designed for those who work in commissioning roles or in provider organisations who are being increasingly required to work within a commissioning environment.  This is designed to bring together a small group who will work together with leading experts to address real-life challenges and find solutions.  Ultimately the bootcamp aims to produce better understanding into the key issues faced by commissioners and providers and to develop useable tools and strategies that participants can apply within their work contexts.

At the end of the bootcamp, participants will:

  • Understand what a commissioning process entails and some of the tools available to improve these processes
  • Have an overview of the evidence for commissioning including the impacts it can produce and the factors which enable high quality commissioning
  • Understand the standards of high quality commissioning and how to apply them in their own organisational context
  • Have an insight into the different roles that partner organisations play in the commissioning process
  • Have an intermediate understanding of how to operate a commissioning approach

You can download the flyer for the commissioning bootcamp here – 170913 PSRG Brochure – Commissioning bootcamp

And more details on our other courses can be found on the website

The future of the public service workforce: a dialogue

Helen Sullivan and I have recently been working on a dialogue paper based on the work we have been doing around the future of the public service workforce with Graeme Head who is the Public Service Commissioner for the New South Wales Public Service Commission.

This paper appears in the most recent issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration which, as I have previously described, is now being edited by a collective including myself.  The first issue comprises a series of dialogue papers between academics and practitioners on key contemporary themes in public administration.

In this paper we explore the issues of the future public services and the nature of work and consider the implications in terms of the public service workforce.  We go on further to offer some sense of where New South Wales is taking aspects of this forward in practice.

If you are interested in the paper it is currently available for free and can be accessed through the following link.  We are currently considering how we might take this research agenda forward so if you have any thoughts about gaps or things you would like to see then please get in touch with me.

The rise of experimental government

I just came across this blog from David Halpern (National Adviser on What Works and CEO of Behavioural Insights Team, UK) which is concerned with the lack of empirical evidence used to guide decision making in many areas of public services.  In the UK a series of ‘What Works’ centres have been established to generate ‘good empirical studies’ in a range of different welfare service areas.

Now I am all for using more evidence to inform policy and practice (working in a university how could I be against this?).  Although I suspect that in some of the areas that the What Works teams are talking about it is not necessarily a lack of evidence that is the problem but weighing up a series of complex value judgements.  These are typically not easily resolved by more evidence about effectiveness.

Anyway, I have written about this blog not to get into a debate about evidence and decision making and if you have been in one of my policy design and implementation classes you will have heard all about my stance on this.  I raise it instead because of the last section of Halpern’s piece which talks about the idea of radical incrementalism.  Halpern explains:

‘Radical incrementalism is the idea that dramatic improvements can be achieved, and are more likely to be achieved, by systematically testing small variations in everything we do, rather than through dramatic leaps into the dark. For example, the dramatic wins of the British cycling team at the last Olympics are widely attributed to the systematic testing by the team of many variations of the bike design and training schedules. Many of these led to small improvements, but when combined created a winning team. Similarly, many of the dramatic advances in survival rates for cancer over the last 30 years are due more to constant refinements in treatment dosage and combination than to new ‘breakthrough’ drugs. Applying similar ‘radical incrementalism’ to public sector policy and practice, from how we design our websites, to the endless details in jobcentres to business support schemes, we can be pretty confident that each of these incremental improvements can lead to an overall performance that is utterly transformed in its cost-effectiveness and overall impact.


Helen Sullivan talked about this very same idea in the Imagining the 21st century public servant workforce report which we published last year. What we argued in this report was that if the approach of radical incrementalism is to be effective then the first task must be to ensure that we all have a sense of what we are working towards.  We both use the example of British cycling and there I guess the aim is to go faster for longer.  The aims in areas of local economic development or early education might be slightly more complex.  Without a sense of strategic aim then evidence cannot play the role in the process that it might.  In our research into the Australian public service one of the things we heard frequently was the lack of strategic oversight and horizon scanning – and I don’t think Australia is alone in this.  Having established where we want to go, having good evidence to back up this process and to help us track progress is, of course, absolutely crucial.

I would like to hear from any individuals or teams who have experimented with this notion of radical incrementalism in recent practice and hear about your experience with this.  Did it turn out to be as radical as you had hoped?  Did you reach the end point?  What helped and hindered this process?






Some recent and not so recent pieces

In this post I summarise some of the various pieces I have authored or co-authored in this research programme over the last few years.

In 2012 Catherine Needham and I chaired a roundtable on the idea of the 21st century public servant under the auspices of the Public Service Academy at the University of Birmingham.  You can find the summary of the discussion here


Shortly before moving to Melbourne Catherine Needham and I won some funds from the ESRC to form a knowledge partnership with Birmingham City Council.  When I left the UK I handed over my part of the project to Catherine Mangan but did stay involve in a less formal capacity.  You can find the review of the literature that the three of us did here and which sets out 8 lessons about the future public service workforce.

21c lessons from the lit

Helen Sullivan and I conducted a research project interviewing about 30 individuals in total to try and get a better handle on what the future Australian public servant workforce might look like and the steps needed to achieve this.  This followed up from a discussion paper that Helen did with Maria Katsonis of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (you can access this here).  The final report of the research by Helen and I can be found here.  Below there is a picture of Helen, myself, Maria and Sir Gus O’Donnell at the launch of this work.

21cps launch

The report from the Birmingham research can be found here.    Below is one of the great illustrations that the Birmingham team commissioned to illustrate their research.

21cps illustration

In addition to these reports a number of pieces have also appeared in public service magazines like The Mandarin or newspapers.  I have put links to these below. 

21st century public service: changing education and recruitmentThe Mandarin, 13thJanuary 2015.

21st century public service: shared vision needed for ‘softer’ skillsThe Mandarin, 17thDecember, 2014.

The 21st century public service: are we ready for the change needed?  The Mandarin, 8thDecember, 2014

Creating the 21st century public servant: emerging from identity crisisThe Mandarin14th July,2014

The 21st-century public servant needs new skillsGuardian Society, 1st May 2013

The making of the 21st century public servantGuardian Professional, 22nd November 2012.

21st Century Public Servant

Although lots has been written about the need for public services to reform, less has been discussed about how this will impact on the workforce.  If we are to plan effectively for the future then it is crucial that we have a sense of what the public service workforce of the future might look like, what roles public servants might play, the skills and capabilities they will need to achieve this and how development and education will need to change.  The workforce issue is important not only because of the sorts of changes that are taking place in the public service context, but also as we are starting to see shifts in terms of the nature of work more broadly.  Whilst some of the suggested changes to work may be more postulated than real at the moment; what is clear is that we are all going to work for longer, we will likely have several careers over this period and portfolio careers will be become more popular.

Over the last few years I have been doing work on this topic in the UK (in conjunction with colleagues at the University of Birmingham) and in Australia.  In this category I will bring together some of the publications that have come out of this work, interesting articles that I come across and ideas of where to take the work programme next.  If you are interested in this topic you might also want to read the blog that I run with colleagues at the University of Birmingham –  We’re always keen to hear about new and interesting ideas, articles or events that might also cover these issues.