The 10 traits today's civil servants need to succeed

Written by Alex Starritt on 17 March 2017 in Feature

What defines a modern civil servant? Alex Starritt from Apolitical shares his insights

Most civil servants must sometimes wish they were Sir Humphrey with his power to machinate, obfuscate and remonstrate his way to whatever result he desired. But the truth is that Humphrey might not make the grade in today's civil service. The skills needed to get things done have changed. After dozens of interviews with excellent civil servants from around the world, we have isolated the 10 abilities they need to succeed in modern government:
1. Collaborative leadership
“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 drawing on other people’s skills. The Fast Stream now consciously tries to build up recruits' personal networks by moving them around departments – and into the private and non-profit sectors.

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2. Tech savvy
Big data may be the most boringly named revolution in history, but that doesn't mean it isn't going to become as ubiquitous and essential as electricity. From live-tracking the dampness of flower beds in Barcelona's public parks to calculating the economic cost of crimes or analysing the knock-on effects of pedestrianising a road, data is everywhere. Add in blockchain and machine learning, and knowing the number for IT isn't going to cut it any more.

3. Confidence
Arnoud Passenier, a Dutch civil servant, who brought together a huge consortium of companies and universities to try and clean up Rio de Janeiro's polluted bay before last year's Olympics, told me, 'I wasn't given this assignment. I created this with people in my network. Only a week before signing the agreement, I said, “Well, Minister and State Secretary, there are fifty-five parties involved, so please, would you like to sign the agreement?” Of course they did, because the plan fits their political agenda and saying no to such a large group is impossible.'

4. Internationalism
Every country in the world has cities, schools and hospitals, and almost every country has hundreds of thousands of civil servants coming up with ways to lower air pollution, ease traffic, improve exam results and cut waiting times. Especially if you don't have the budget for detailed research – and even if you do – it's easier to copy someone else's wheel than to reinvent it. Online platforms, networks and Skype have made it possible.

5. The common touch
The world's biggest source on data and experience of public services is the public itself, and effective civil servants are the ones who know how to tap it. In Britain, that's one of the things underlying the big successes of the Nudge Unit, which has redesigned tax reminder letters, organ donation requests and much more around 'user experience'. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, 25,000 civil servants a year are retrained by crowdsourcing the public's expertise in things like data, management and technology.

6. Storytelling
To mobilise all the people in other departments and units that your networks bring you into contact with, you need to be able to articulate a compelling vision of why what you want them to do matters. Get your storytelling right and you can move mountains. Two civil servants in the US, Gabby Dreyfus and Chad Gallinat, together set up something called the Global Lighting Challenge, which has now brought together 14 governments, the European Commission and major manufacturers like Philips and Osram to switch to energy-efficient LEDS.

7. Friends in other sectors
Never has there been a better time to collaborate with the private and non-profit sectors, partly because government budgets are so constrained and partly because business is now ready for it. A third of social enterprises in the UK are less than three years old, comparied with around 10% of other small businesses, and more of them are growing. In other words, social enterprise is where the action is, and 59% of them do business with the public sector.

8. Friends in other departments
As governments try to save money by dealing with social problems 'upstream', i.e. before they happen, it's becoming increasingly clear that the best solution to a crime problem might be an education initiative; or the best way to raise educational attainment might be via social services. So Ecuador, which has 'co-ordinating ministers' to join up the efforts of the Health, Education, Welfare, Sports and Housing departments, is lowering infant malnutrition rates by educating poor teenage girls about contraception.

9. An appetite for risk
Doing something new means sticking your neck out, and it might go wrong. If you don't accept, calculate and mitigate that risk, you'll either never do anything new or possibly mess up ordinary people's lives. As Virginia Hamilton, a pioneer of human-centred design in the US Labor Department, told me, 'It’s funny – it’s very difficult to get fired in government, so if that’s the case, it’s the place where it should be so easy to risk things. And you know, I don’t get paid enough to not have fun at work.'

10. Optimism
Gone are the days when you could just learn your job and keep doing it. Yes, government is big, complicated, opaque and risk-averse, but it's also the most powerful institution in the country, capable both of doing things that no other organisation could imagine and of bringing together other organisations to move in the direction it wants. It's a great responsibility, but it's great power, too.

About the author

Alex Starritt is editor of Apolitical, the global network for innovative public servants, where a version of this article first appeared

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The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

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