The fundamentals of public service practice

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All public servants practice. From Accountants to audiologists, from barristers to builders, from committee clerks to cosmonauts.

In How to Be a Public Servant the aim is to emphasise the things that all public servants have in common. To that end I think that there are some fundamental aspects of practice that all public servants share; the building blocks that specialist practice are built on.

By practice I mean the professional ‘doing’ of public service; the behaviours that the individual public servant employs in order to make a difference and add to the public good.

I should say that the challenges that I have outlined before, such as silo working or work overload, lie outside of practice although they clearly have an impact on it.

Of course practice is not unique to public service. Indeed, some elements apply in exactly the same way across the private and voluntary sectors. Some, however, have a meaning that is specific to public service. I think it is possible, therefore, to talk about a distinct public service practice.

Here is my list.

1. Relating

This is the fundamental that underpins the other six. Humans are social and all aspects of public sector practice are social. In other words, to practice effectively the public servant has to be good at relationships.

The next two fundamentals are about the knowledge that shapes practice.

2. Learning

The process of acquiring knowledge that we use when we practice. More than simply training or courses learning happens constantly whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Being good at learning by learning about learning is a prerequisite to effective practice.

3. Sharing

As the public servant acquires knowledge about practice so they seek to share it so that it can be used to do good elsewhere. Sharing happens outside of the moment of practice. It relates to methods and advice being communicated between public servants to support learning.

The next two are about moving from knowledge to the moment of practice.

4. Deciding

Public servants have discretion in what they do. Even the most tightly prescribed practice involves some choices. How those choices are made has important consequences for the practice that follows.

5. Preparing

This refers to organising the context that practice will take place in. In part this means the physical environment, in part the tools and equipment and in part the people who will be present. The public servant themselves are an aspect of context and so also need to be prepared.

The final two fundamentals relate to the moment of practice itself.

6. Attending

Effective practice requires the public servant to be present in the moment of practice; to be mindful. Attending means being aware and engaged. Listening is an important aspect of attending although not the only one.

7. Making

The end results of practice are the things that the public servant makes. Such things might be tangible like a flower bed, a school lesson or a surgical procedure. Or they might be less tangible such as advice, information or reassurance. Either way these are the outputs that the public servant hopes will make a difference; do some good.

So, that is the list.

So What? What Next?

These fundamentals are, I think, the basis for conversations between public servants regardless of discipline, occupation or profession. Of course these are all massive areas and the headings are really just hooks to hang some discussions on.

I am not an expert in any of these; far from it. I am, however, interested in exploring further.

I am also thinking about these fundamentals as modes of practice that the public servant will be engaged in at any particular moment; sometimes more than one at a time. In this sense they may also qualify as a check list for self reflection as effective practice for any public servant requires that all seven things are done well.