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Five skills that 2021 showed us public servants will need for the future

16 December 2021

News and media


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The last two years have been challenging ones for the entire public service. We hope that you’ve found them fulfilling and that your organisation has been able to function effectively and maintain its resilience.

At ANZSOG we know that the role of public servants was becoming challenging even before COVID-19 struck – greater demands, more complex problems and an increasingly unpredictable operating environment.

A lot of great work has been done over the last two years, especially in collaborations across agencies and between government and the community, and the challenge is to retain what worked to ensure that governments become better at solving complex policy issues and delivering services.

All of these things raise the bar for the skills that public servants will need to be influential and effective in developing policy, leading teams, advising ministers and administering programs.

The following popular articles appeared on ANZSOG’s website in 2021, and highlight different skills or strategic frameworks that public servants will find useful in the years to come.

1. Learn how to communicate with impact – online and offline

The shift away from communicating face-to-face, to communicating online was a difficult one for many people, and one that underscored the importance of communication skills for public servants.

ANZSOG’s Dr Zina O’Leary is an expert on communication and in this article outlines the importance of different engagement tools for online, and of keeping your communications skills up-to-date.

She says good communicators focus on their audience, not themselves, and learn to use their ‘authentic’ voice to motivate action in others.

“One thing we don’t do very well when we communicate is to think about what impact we want to have. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to say, but not about what we want our audience to do.”

2) How genuine community engagement can help you manage risk

Effective community engagement not only leads to better policy, it can be the best risk management tool public servants have, says Emma Fletcher, Co-CEO of Australia’s leading deliberative democracy company – democracyCo.

Public servants need to recognise that the world they operate in is complex, and they do not have the solution to every problem. Properly engaging with the community can lead to a deeper understanding of issues and build community and stakeholder support.

One warning though: poorly run or tokenistic consultation with no chance of changing decisions at the end of it can make things worse.

3) Professor Beth Noveck: How to turn your public interest project from idea to reality

COVID-19 has shown that public services need innovation – so how can individual public servants become problem solvers, and spark innovation within the cautious world of the bureaucracy?

US Professor Beth Noveck outlines the skills that they need to make a difference and shows how to take public interest projects from idea to reality.

She says that public problem solvers possess a replicable skill set that can be applied to any public problem for making measurable change. These skills include: problem definition, data-analytical thinking, human-centred design, and the ability to work in a collaborative way that builds on the collective intelligence of communities.

“Public problem solvers are not reckless,” Professor Noveck said.

“Despite their willingness to innovate, they hold fast to the values of the public interest. They are ethically conscious of obligations to due process and equity. Rather than merely complying with rules, they act with alacrity, ingenuity, integrity, and a relentless focus on solving some of the most urgent and difficult challenges of our time.

4) How public servants can make economics work for them

The language of economics is still the dominant language used in discourse around public policy, and almost all policies are evaluated through an economic lens at some point. That means public servants who understand economic thinking are better able to evaluate policies and choose between alternatives, and to make the case for their preferred policy option.

Griffith University Professor Ross Guest says public servants who understand economics can allocate scarce resources more effectively and shoot down the bogus economic arguments often advanced in policy debate.

“The first thing to learn is that economics is not an entirely settled science. When a politician starts a sentence with ‘any economist will tell you’, they’re often wrong – there are many issues on which good economists disagree,” Professor Guest said.

He said that economics had to look to politics to set the broader goals of government, based on ethical and moral concerns, but had a role to play in determining how goals should be achieved efficiently.

“The free market fails in a lot of areas where private markets produce an undersupply of key goods – an example would be COVID vaccines, which are being provided free by governments.”

5. What ministers really want: former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett gives the lowdown

Politicians face huge pressures, have limited time and attention spans and are besieged by competing priorities. Public servants who want to make any impact, and deliver good policy, need to understand how ministers think and what they want in terms of policy advice.

Former Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett explains how public servants can increase their understanding of their political environment without compromising their impartiality. He says that understanding a minister’s priorities and their learning style is important for increasing your influence.

“Politics constrains public policy and understanding that environment, while being and remaining apolitical, is an important part of being influential,” he says.

All governments have a narrative that they are trying to follow, and policies or advice that are in tune with that narrative are more likely to be acted on, and Professor Bartlett explains why there are only six basic election campaign narratives used by governments and oppositions.

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