The future of the public service: generalist or specialist roles?

The 21st Century Public Servant project is examining the major changes occurring for public servants and the concomitant skill and knowledge base required to adjust to them. These include cuts to budgets, increased localisation, greater demands for service user voice and control, increased public expectations and a mixed economy of welfare provision. The project builds on the findings of the 2011 University of Birmingham Policy Commission into the ‘Future of Local Public Services’ which identified the need to pay attention to the changing roles undertaken by public servants and the associated support and development needs.It is a Knowledge Exchange project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council in partnership with Birmingham City Council. 

This year, Associate Professor Helen Dickinson (@drhdickinson) and Professor Helen Sullivan (@helenCsullivan) from the Melbourne School of Government have been conducting a number of interviews in Australia exploring similar issues to the English project.  Below, Helen provides some early reflections from this analysis (first published on the 21C blog). Their findings suggest that soft skills (communication, brokering and so on) are increasingly critical for an effective public sector.

(The 21C PS blog also has the most amazing hand drawn graphics)


We are in the process of analysing the data at the moment, but this seems to suggest that in the future there will be important roles for public servants to play in terms of: spanning boundaries; regulation; providing expert advice; engaging with the community; story telling; commissioning and strategic planning.  Some of these roles are extensions of those which already exist within today’s public services although others suggest a substantially different direction for some areas of public services.

One of the issues that many of those we spoke to raised in terms of roles concerns the balance between generalist and specialist roles.

Like many other industries, public services have traditionally recruited individuals with particular professional qualifications or technical abilities to carry out defined roles.  The recruitment and promotion of individuals within public services traditionally relied on an individual’s ability to demonstrate that they were a competent nurse, engineer, accountant etc.  Over the last 20-30 years organisations have recognised the importance of another set of skills which are less tangible than these specialised or technical abilities.  This set of ‘softer’ skills (e.g. emotional intelligence, communication, collaboration, people management) are becoming more important in the current context and will likely become even more crucial in the future.  These kinds of skills are often regarded as generalist in the sense that they are not associated with any particular profession and may reside across the workforce.

Whilst recognising the growing importance of  ‘softer’ skills, interviewees often went on to suggest that public services at present have too much in the way of generalist staff at the expense of more specialist skills.  One interviewee explained “I think…it’s arguable that we’ve probably gone too far, so that we don’t have enough of what you might call those ‘core technical’ skills that are needed for what you might say is the more contemporary public service”. One interviewee referred to this as the “myth of the generic manager” where a preoccupation with ensuring that managers have a set of particular skills (e.g. staff management, budgeting, planning) has meant that content knowledge and technical expertise had been underplayed in recent years.

It is clear that there are some real gaps in terms of some specialist and technical skills in some areas of Australian public services – and many of these are similar to those suggested in the English research.  Often cited are commercial contracting skills, specialist design and IT skills, amongst others. Whether Australia has gone too far in terms of pursuing the generalist manager is, I think, a different and probably more complex issue than it is sometimes presented to be.

In practice public service organisations do, and will, of course, need a mix of both specialist and generalist expertise.  As one interviewee explained, “I don’t think it’s an “either-or”. It’s not a binary decision. You need a mix of generalists and you need a mix of specialists”.  The crux of the issue may instead relate not to a proliferation of generalists and a dearth of technical experts but instead to issues of job design and what we ask professionals to do.  We were often told that individuals are recruited to particular programmes or professional roles and are performance managed against their ability to discharge this particular process or task.  This may mean that a range of the other sorts of skills and abilities that this individual has and that align with broader organisational goals and missions are not fully drawn on.  This is often an issue of a lack in strategic workforce planning and performance management rather than willingness on the part of the individual.

Many of the roles that will be important in the future relate to more general skills, but we are not arguing that professional and technical skills will not be important.  They will and we need to strategically plan for these.  Yet we also need to ensure that attention is paid to some of these important and generic skills and ensure that these are firmly embedded within teams and organisations.

Posted by Gemma Carey