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What 21st century public servants must do to thrive in a volatile and complex environment

18 October 2017

News and media


Working in the public sector has never been easy. But it almost certainly has never been as complex and challenging as it is now.

The modern public service manager requires a new way of thinking to thrive in a political world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. A world where demands and scrutiny are increasing while resources are becoming scarcer.

Zeger van der Wal, Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, who will be teaching an upcoming ANZSOG seminar Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity: Managing in a VUCA world, says that the new challenges posed by the 21st century operating environment can be used as opportunities for innovation and excellence.

He says that public sector managers are increasingly required to manage a more diverse and independent-minded workforce, engage with a wider and more assertive network of stakeholders, and work collaboratively across internal and external boundaries.

A new 21st century type of worker

Associate Professor van der Wal says that in order to become “21st century-proof” managers will need to develop a new set of skills and behaviour, starting with using their ‘smart power’.

“You will not thrive in a VUCA world because of seniority, or because you were designated as important or powerful in the past. Commanding respect and authority because your business card says director won’t cut it,” he said.

“You must be savvy in leveraging opportunities and technologies to outperform competitors and convince your masters. You must also be astute in strategically securing support and funding from various authorising environments.

“Public servants will increasingly need to break out of their siloes and be collaborative and connected, reaching out to stakeholders and citizens to get things done. Once they move beyond the hierarchical structures of the public service, they will need to learn how to let go and invite others to participate, while maintaining their authority and accountability for results.

“They will only successfully fulfil their obligations and mandates if they are granted informal, not just functional, authority and legitimacy by their various partners. They have to earn this continuously through excellent performance, enabling and energising leadership, and a sufficient display of expertise and content knowledge,” Associate Professor van der Wal said.

The balance between short-term action and long-term planning has always been a crucial one in the public sector and will be become even more crucial as public service leaders respond to an increasingly politicised environment.

Associate Professor van der Wal says public sector managers must simultaneously manage the ‘political scoring logic’ in an era of never-ending news cycles, while building multiple long-term scenarios and analytical models to anticipate VUCA events.

“21st century public managers will find ways to connect both logics and timelines, by showing political masters and other key stakeholders how investing in long-term planning and anticipation will also help them to do better in the now, and to address and account for crises and scandals. This means making the foresight process accessible, meaningful, and inclusive, and tap into the opportunities that technology and crowd sourcing provide,” he said.

A more entrepreneurial public servant

Public servants will need to become more entrepreneurial, even commercial, in their thinking while still maintaining a strong public service ethos.

In addition they need to become “specialist generalists” who realise that their initial training will only partly determine how their careers will unfold, and who remain open to new ideas throughout their careers. The ability to switch rapidly and frequently between roles, sectors, projects, networks, and issues will become even more highly valued.

He says that agencies need to start thinking about how they recruit and develop these managers, and how they ensure existing staff are able to obtain the new skills they need.

“Management development programs for 21st century public managers need to take into account that a decade from now, typical public service careers will look dramatically different from today.

“While retaining and incentivising high-potentials, organisations will need to continuously invest just as much, or maybe even more, in senior employees who have to stay employed into their late sixties, while staying motivated to walk the extra mile. Of particular importance here are recent private sector successes in the area of reverse mentoring, where 25 year-olds teach 55 year-olds how to launch policy campaigns on Twitter, while the latter teach the youngsters how to deal with opportunistic politicians and balance family life with a career. Studies show both generations feel more motivated and useful as a result.”

While some public sector agencies recognise the need for change, others are still grasping at what is required to equip themselves for this new environment.

Associate Professor van der Wal’s seminar will discuss major world-wide trends and explore what skills will be needed to survive in a VUCA world.