Developing and recruiting the future public servant

Public service workforce reform has been on the minds of public administrators, especially in light of high profile reviews such as the Independent Review of the Australian Public Service. UNSW Canberra’s Public Service Research Group academics Professor Deborah Blackman, Dr Samantha Johnson, Associate Professor Helen Dickinson and Dr Linda Dewey delve into this issue in greater detail from a development and recruitment perspective. They suggest that there are four distinct elements in social learning that can serve as a framework for building workforce capability and supporting change within the public service.

A full version of their thoughts can be found in Reimagining the Future Public Service Workforce.

It is not uncommon to read pieces on public sector reforms discussing what public services do and how they are undergoing significant change.  If this is true, then the types of competencies and skills needed to acquit public service roles will also need to undergo some radical change in terms of the development and recruitment of public servants. In a recently published chapter, we suggest that there needs to be a rethinking of development and recruitment processes to embed a social learning approach.  In this piece we set out the key building blocks of this approach. 

The importance of social learning

Traditional recruitment processes, which have often focused on experience in a similar role or task, are not well equipped to consider the desired attributes of a different future. Moreover, formal training has a number of inherent limitations; some core skills can be transferred and integrated into work relatively easily, but more complex tacit knowledge is harder to develop and/or transfer, requiring organizations to actively support their employees in applying and implementing their new knowledge. The question becomes, therefore, how can a wider variety of skills be attracted, developed and sustained?

People learn from each other through observation, imitation and modelling, a phenomenon described as social learning; it is one of the reasons why “walking the talk” is so important. Advocates of social learning suggest that it can help support the integration of new capabilities – soft skills in particular – into organizations in a way that will create collective change.  There are four distinct elements in social learning and we suggest these can serve as a framework for building workplace capability and supporting change which will need to be applied through new human resource practices that actively implement each element.

1. Attentional Processes: Learning by Observing Role Models in the Workplace

People identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and learn the apparently acceptable rules of behavior from observing the people with whom they interact regularly, in particular the most appealing or dominant members of their social group.  Understanding the significance of observing modelled behaviors helps explain why embedding new organizational capacity, through the development of new employee skills and capabilities, can be difficult to cement in the workplace. While on the one hand the desired behaviors, such as innovation, are articulated and championed verbally, on the other hand, people continue to copy the original behaviors that are modelled regularly and accepted as appropriate.  

Human Resource Manager (HRM) practitioners can help support learning and behavioral change by identifying those people in the workplace who currently model, or would be best placed to model, the desired behaviors. In the workplace this may be the middle and senior managers, but equally it may be those who are seen to be successful, confident, charismatic and highly visible. Training these people in the preferred or new behaviors, and supporting them to explicitly portray these behaviors regularly and consistently, can support change through social learning. Changed recruitment activity also provides an opportunity to introduce and subsequently model new or preferred behaviors in the workplace. HRM practitioners can identify the behaviors required to support change in the organization and recruit candidates who can confidently apply those behaviors or who have a clear potential to do so once trained. What will be critical is that the new recruits are not socialized into current practices, instead of demonstrating new ones and so HRM and Human Resource Development practitioners must work together to ensure that the behaviors they seek to encourage through training programs are the same behaviors they identify and select in recruitment activities.

2. Retention Processes: Remembering and Reproducing Desired Behaviors

Having role models is a good start, but they need to be seen within a context where their skills are explicitly supported and consistently rewarded. The observer must consistently see, and have repeated exposure to, preferred behaviors, in order to develop visual and verbal cues that allow easy recall and practice of the behavior.  In the modern workplace, being engaged and focused on another’s behavior can be challenging when emails and other electronic communication have replaced much face-to-face interaction, particularly with senior staff who are the most effective role models.  We suggest that the most pertinent support mechanism at this stage of the framework is mentoring and coaching. By providing those who should be modelling new desired behaviors and are responsible for developing them in others with support from people who know what the intended outcomes are, there is a much greater chance of consistency.

3. Motor Reproduction Processes: Refining Behavior through Self-Assessment and Feedback

The third element of the framework is where, through self-corrective activities and feedback from others, people refine newly acquired behaviors bit-by-bit until mastery is achieved.  An environment and workplace that is supportive of legitimate attempts to apply new behaviors, correcting errors and providing constructive and corrective feedback, will enable new behaviors to be applied.  For this to happen, two things are required: an environment that tolerates error and a workplace that provides regular, constructive or corrective feedback. It is widely reported that many public sector organizations are risk averse and this is often cited as the reason why there is a persistent call for increased innovation. This risk aversion can inhibit learning and change, as observers may be reluctant to apply new behaviors for fear of the adverse consequences of error. It is well understood that employees will struggle to correct and refine new behaviors if constructive feedback is not forthcoming.  But this requires not just employers supporting employee mastery of an activity, but also creating supporting systems and structures which reinforce desired behaviors and promote employee beliefs that they can achieve.

We suggest that the role of HRM practitioners will be to consider how to build an environment that tolerates and manages experimentation and a workplace that provides positive, constructive and corrective feedback, not only through consistent HR practices, but also through management development and general organizational governance. Recognizing this bigger system feedback issue helps to explain why recruiting for new skills is not enough; when the new person arrives they must be supported to use and demonstrate the skills.

4. Motivational Processes: Mastering and Embedding Behavior

Applying new behaviors at work regularly enough to achieve mastery of new skills will require both individual motivation and organizational support. People will be motivated to practice, refine and master new or preferred behaviors when they believe that the behavior will bring valuable and positive results and self-satisfaction. Performance management is a strategic management tool which can provide the wider context, purpose and clarity that an employee needs to be able to perform their role well. Managers and mentors can use the process to explain what high performance will look like, and this links to the ongoing modelling needed for social learning.

What is apparent is that, as well as HR practices being linked to a strategic objective, they must also have a goal to create the environment that will support actively managed social learning that links formal and experiential learning and supports the development of mastery. In organizations seeking to develop future public servants with a wider variety of skills, HR practices must support the change by ensuring that, not only are the new skills and behaviors required clearly identified, but the organizational systems are in place to support their sustained attainment.

Bandura’s social learning theory offers a framework that can be used to bring about change through HR practices that support behavioral role modelling, the practice of new behaviors in the workplace, regular and constructive feedback on behavior and clear rewarding of valued behaviors.

The full version of this chapter and the book it is taken from can be accessed here.