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How to Succeed in Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Josh Lowe
July 20, 2018

Economists are fretting about the advance of job-pinching robots. Voters are kicking back against the effects of globalisation. And governments everywhere are spending a lot of time thinking about how to make sure the people they serve have the right skills for the workplace of the future.

But what governments sometimes miss are the workers in their own organizations. As the state works more with the private sector and citizens’ expectations of services change, public sector jobs demand whole new abilities and areas of knowledge. The digital revolution could eliminate 77 percent of public sector jobs by 2030.

In Apolitical’s new guide, How To Succeed In Government, we look at what skills the public servants of the future will need, and how you can learn them.

For example, data literacy—the ability to make sense out of big sheets of numbers—used to be something only statisticians and intelligence personnel worried about. Now, whole swathes of government could barely function without their staff being ready to crunch information. Estonia saves over 2.8 million hours of work each year with a data exchange network.

And then there’s Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the United States, just 27 percent of people are satisfied with the digital services government provides. One solution is to bring the state closer to the public by using AI to work out what they need. Singapore, for example, uses chatbots to help citizens cut through bureaucracy. And it can save lives: Las Vegas warns drivers to avoid areas where crashes are going to be likely up to two hours in advance.

Meanwhile, where governments are often criticised for being out of touch, more and more are taking up “design thinking.” This involves creating services with the user experience in mind from the start — just like Apple does when it’s dreaming up a new phone. The approach has huge potential, but it needs public servants to “think different”.

Just a few years ago, using behavioral psychology to predict and influence citizens’ behavior—so called “nudge” techniques—was a niche idea. But the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, or nudge unit, has now registered an extra 100,000 organ donors a year and doubled the number of army applicants with its efforts. Understanding the latest thinking in the area could mean you get ahead in any number of policy roles.

But what about if you’re a manager? You could take inspiration from the city of Louisville in Kentucky, U.S. There, government is rewarding civil servants with badges for carrying out innovative ideas.

If staff carry out simple reforms such as building an open dataset, consulting citizens online or working together with other departments in a new way, they’re recognised on a tiered reward system. They could get anything from a Linkedin recommendation to an award at a city-wide ceremony. The badges themselves get added to a worker’s profile on a special digital platform.

There’s a ton of courses online—from Coursera to the Open Data Institute (ODI)—to help anyone in the public service who’s keen to learn a challenging new skill. And to start getting your head around what’s needed, you could begin with our reading list for government innovators, featuring former insiders and top wonks including David Halpern of Britain’s Nudge Unit and Christian Bason of the Danish Design Centre.

But if you’re looking for something to lead you through the madness, sign up to our platform and download the guide. Once you’re a member, you might even be able to find someone in another government struggling with exactly the same challenges as you. Learning just a couple of cool new skills could be all it takes, not only to fend off the job-pinching robots, but to ensure a better future for everyone your government serves.


Author: Josh Lowe is Deputy Editor at Apolitical, where he writes and edits on innovative global policy. Before he joined the company he worked as a political reporter and digital editor, with staff jobs at Newsweek and Prospect magazine and writing published in The Times, The Evening Standard, The Telegraph, The New Statesman and more. He has appeared as a commentator on TV and radio including BBC News, NBC News, France 24 and LBC.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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