Imagining the 21st century public service workforce

Public sector Information technology Training Employment Australia

This research diagnoses the challenges relating to the future of the public service workforce, and identifies some of the potential solutions to these challenges.


Much has been written about public services in recent years, but the one constant within this vast swathe of literature is the theme of change.

It has been widely argued that governments around the world are presently teetering on the precipice of significant transformation. Such wide scale and radical reform is necessary so that public services of the future will be fit for purpose within a new rapidly changing world. Whilst some of the drivers of this change are external to government and relate to shifts in the broader population, others relate to the nature of work and employment. Together it is suggested that we are about to see significant changes both to what public servants do and the ways in which they do it.

What public servants do, it is argued, will change due to shifts in the external environment and citizen expectations of government. While the literature notes there will be significant changes in terms of the public service workforce, there is often little detail about what these might actually. Alongside changes to government and public services we are also witnessing significant changes to the nature of work itself. In the future our working lives will be longer and more varied. Many of our future public servants will not be interested in a thirty year career in the same organisation, but instead seek portfolio careers and/or careers that span a number of organisations, institutions and roles. If public services are to attract the brightest and the best then they will need to offer career paths and entry ways that fit with these ideas about the shape and nature of work.

Whilst most of the literature agrees there is significant change ahead, there is little detail about what these changes might look like and how governments might best act to ensure a high quality workforce in the future. This is the gap that this project seeks to fill, building on recent work from Australia and internationally.

In June 2013 the Melbourne School of Government and the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet jointly authored a publication on the ‘21st century public servant’. This discussion paper aimed to generate debate about the public servant in the 21st century and subsequently a range of other individuals have contributed to this debate. In other countries similar conversations are taking place, most notably in the UK where the Public Service Academy (hosted by the University of Birmingham) has a programme of work on this topic. All agree that we will see significant changes in the roles, skills and capabilities of future public servants, but to date we have struggled to detail what these changes might look like and how they might be brought about.

Against this background, this research project aimed to explore these issues but focusing on and working with organisations and individuals with a clear sense of how change might be effected. In this way we hoped to provide a more fine-grained diagnosis of the challenges relating to the future of the public service workforce, and to identify some of the potential solutions that might meet these challenges. The research questions that underpin this project are as follows:

  • What is the range of different roles of the twenty-first century public servant?
  • What are the competencies and skills that public servants require to achieve these roles?
  • What are the support and training requirements of these roles?
  • How might government better support and promote public service careers?
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