• Analysis
  • February 11, 2016
  • 11 minutes
  • 0

Ten traits of the modern public servant

The skills and attitudes you need to be an effective policymaker

If you believe the image of public servants you encounter in much of the popular press, little has changed in the corridors of power since the stereotype of stuffy old boys’ clubs, officious disdain for the citizen and pernickety adherence to regulations – regardless of their outcome. But the men and women we at Apolitical speak to every day demonstrate that there is something of a Renaissance going on in the public service. From those conversations we have distilled ten qualities that characterise the new breed of people working in government today.

Many of these ideas are borne out in our government innovation newsfeed.

1. Capitalising on the scale of government

Rather than feeling powerless in front of its size and complexity, you can use it as a tool. Government has a unique ability to make things happen solely because it is government. Projects such as the Better Buildings Challenge can prompt private enterprises to change and improve their behaviour without imposing any regulation, but simply by giving recognition for improvement. Government also has an unmatched power to convene varied groups and direct them to a single aim, whether they are businesses, research institutes, civil society, citizens or all at once.

2. Understanding power

Even the best projects need some muscle behind them and today, you need to be able to work the levers of influence. That requires convincing people in eminent positions to champion your work, building a coalition of people behind it and picking your battles. Dame Ruth Carnall, who completely overhauled London’s stroke services, did so in the teeth of intense political opposition, and even closed the city’s best stroke unit, which also happened to be the one used by members of Parliament. To do so, she won over the head of that very unit. At the extreme end of the scale, it also means knowing how to use heavy leverage like control over appointments and budgets to make sure things are done right.

3. Calculating risk

As one senior US public servant told us, it’s very hard to fire a public servant, so smart public servants should feel free to take strategic risks. One example she gave is that they take on the most difficult jobs, because if they fail, it’s alright, but if they succeed, it’s fantastic. More generally, an appetite for risk is fundamental to the work of every government innovation lab and every public servant who wants to try things outside the norm. It can even mean doing things without a mandate. Arnoud Passenier, who brought together the Olympic clean-up coalition, has created large-scale programmes and only told his superiors when everything was ready to function successfully. Operating like that not only requires confidence; it requires an understanding of political risk.

4. Harnessing citizens’ knowledge

All manner of services in all manner of countries are being overhauled on the principles of human-centred design. Its power comes from tapping into ordinary people’s experience of the services they use, and how well they work. But this willingness to listen to the world outside government can go further. Cities like Los Angeles have recruited ‘entrepreneurs in residence’ to deploy their personal experience in stimulating the growth of other businesses. And in Brazil, public servants are crowd-sourcing knowledge from the populace, eschewing training courses for asking people to pass on their expertise directly. As in so many cases today, these public officials are not saying, ‘We know all the answers.’ Instead, they are saying, ‘Teach us.’

5. Leading collaboratively

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” So said President Truman, and it’s never been more true than today. The increasing importance and availability of networks, whether online or off, has multiplied the opportunities for galvanising other people’s skills. The most effective way to persuade a department to do something is often not to simply present it, but to use trusted people on the inside to put it forward from within. That extends to ever greater co-operation with people in the private sector and society as a whole. DiploHack, an initiative of the Dutch Foreign Ministry, convenes technologists and entrepreneurs to solve problems for the countries in which its embassies are based.

6. Embracing new technology

Understanding science and technology is only getting more important as the digital revolution changes government as much as it is everything else. Big Data and smartphones in particular are opening up previously unexplored – or indeed previously unimagined – areas of possibility and opportunities for saving costs. In the Pakistani Punjab, pioneering projects have used cheap new tech to prevent epidemics of disease as well as to clamp down on corruption. The World Bank has measured the amount of light – and hence the degree of electrification – in 600,000 Indian villages every night for twenty years, and the White House is recruiting tranches of top-notch technologists to be Presidential Innovation Fellows.

7. Systems thinking

To do anything ambitious, it’s essential to understand how your objectives intersect with those of others. The best way to improve school results may come not from the Department of Education but via social services. Better health for children may come via the Ministry for Sport. Greater public safety may come via the Department of Culture. The next step is to use those intersections to embed new policies in work that is already going on. In that way, the huge forces that government unleashes can be harnessed to make changes automatically. Every element of Nigeria’s comprehensive de-radicalisation plan exists as a tweak to the work of existing agencies, whether that’s PTSD counselling for militants in prison, anti-radical curricula in schools or early-warning networks in local councils. Denmark’s innovation unit, MindLab, has recruited “Lab Rats” inside mainstream departments to spread its methods as they go about their work.

8. Strategic storytelling

To mobilise all these people in other agencies, you need to motivate them. Today’s best public servants can articulate a powerful vision of why their work matters, reminding their colleagues why they joined the public service to begin with. Gabby Dreyfus and Chad Gallinat managed to launch the Global Lighting Challenge – which has brought together 14 governments, the European Commission and major manufacturers like Philips and Osram to switch to energy-efficient lighting – in part because of a good metaphor; an international public-private consortium came together to try and clean up Rio’s Guanabara Bay because of a narrative of change for the Olympic Games.

9. A sense of timing

To every thing there is a season; a time to sow, a time to reap and a time to launch initiatives. It is far easier to mobilise the vast machinery of government behind a project when its momentum is already heading in that direction. Today’s public servants are able to look for that momentum and harness it. The Global Lighting Challenge brought together so many governments by piggybacking on those governments’ existing commitments in the field. By contrast, David Halpern, pioneer of behavioural insights at Britain’s now globally imitated Nudge Unit, attempted to do the same work ten years earlier, and got nowhere. The timing wasn’t right.

10. Promiscuous learning

Gone are the days when you could learn your job and just keep doing it. Today it’s crucial to pick up skills – like design thinking – that will outlive the fluctuations of policy and best practice. That applies particularly to learning from other departments and the private sector. The British Fast Stream, which recruits a thousand top graduates each year, now moves them frequently from ministry to ministry and even sends them on secondment into the private and charitable sectors, to act like industrious bees, cross-pollinating knowledge.

These are the traits that we think characterise the most imaginative and high-impact public servants working in government today. But we don’t know all the answers. Do you have others? Disagree? Send us your ideas and suggestions of people you know who exemplify these traits. Write to us on hello@apolitical.co or on Twitter @apolitcalco.

(Picture credit: Flickr/Graeme Maclean)

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