If you believe the depictions of public servants in movies and TV, you’re likely to think they are a stodgy, officious bunch whose affinity for bureaucracy knows no bounds. Traditional news media, meanwhile, often portray civil servants as soulless — even corrupt — autocrats who care more about the bottom line than citizens.
Apolitical tries to shine a different light on government workers — one that emphasises their optimism, ingenuity and collaborative spirit. But what skills and values do you really need to thrive in the modern civil service? We turned to our members, public servants from Denmark to South Africa, to find out.
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Natasha Lewis, Senior Policy Analyst at the Ministry for Women, New Zealand
Patience, resilience and kindness. One of my favourite sayings, which I learned from a brilliant woman who manages a research centre at the University of Auckland, is “Everyone here is smart, so distinguish yourself by being kind”. Or a simpler version, which was a sticker on her laptop — “Dude, be nice”.
Too often, we equate kindness with being non-assertive or even being a pushover. There are so many people brimming with brilliant ideas. But those with the kindness to create inclusive, powerful ways to design, shape, deliver and evaluate those brilliant ideas are the ones I keep wanting to connect with and learn from.
2. Shrewd judgment
Syed Muntasir Mamun, Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government of Bangladesh
I would say the ability to see through someone. The public servant is in a unique position — he or she is bound by the machination of a political master. He has to deliver to unknown faces. One has to see through the veils, as there are many masks people wear. For a public servant, this is very important — that they understand which mask they are speaking to. If you understand that, it solves a lot of mysteries and heartbreak. The next steps are imagination, hard work, teamwork and an open mind.
3. Future-proof skills
Aarathi Krishnan, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
The face of government is changing — the shift is not just in geopolitical powers, but the rising powers of cities, of private sectors, of civil society. We need to rethink public service overall. How do we skill government departments to be prepared for a complex and changing future and the changing needs and lives of citizens? It needs a rethink — not just of skills and services and programs, but the type of talent and skills we recruit for.
Public servants need to be considerably more data- and tech-literate to understand the powers and opportunities afforded by emerging technology. They need the ability to move beyond just “tick-the-box” programs and policies and embrace innovative approaches and partners.
Zakhele Mbhele, Member of Parliament, South Africa
I believe that what makes a good public servant, particularly in terms of politicians and political office-bearers, is the quality of operating from a premise of ideas and principles, not individual interests and partisan agendas.
Victor Khodayar, Partnerships and Business Development, the United Nations, Denmark
Civil vocation and commitment require the constant desire to improve society’s quality of life, current situation and future opportunities. Everybody looks for the best for their families — but a civil servant looks for the best for the whole societies and countries.
They need tenacity and consistency to achieve practical results to improve people’s lives; to build that vision of a better society.
6. A sense of duty
Wouter Kriel, Project Manager Land Reform Advisory Desk, South Africa
We are going through a painful process of uncovering massive corruption in the South African state at the moment and, at the core, there is almost always a public servant who could not resist some form of bribe. Obviously, a bribe has to be offered before it can be accepted, but this is where integrity as a value for public servants come in.
I would say a public servant should always be mindful of the “servant” in public servant. In our context, a government position often is seen as a status position, and not one of serving the public good.
7. A hint of rebellion
Siobhan McKenna, Senior Policy Officer, the City of London
The most effective public servants I have come across are those that challenge, constantly. They challenge their own ideas and biases, they challenge the way it has “always been done” and they challenge senior thought leaders.
The really effective ones collaborate with partners who will challenge the status quo, also. Challenge and collaboration lead to innovation, and that is what will help us all to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.
(Picture credit: Unsplash)