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Barry Quirk: The next 30 years will demand new capabilities

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Over the next 30 years to 2050, local government managers will need to dramatically develop their capabilities if they are to keep ahead of the demands and pressures they and their organisations will face.

Three capabilities will need to come to the fore.

Local government staff will need to show empathy in their work. They will need to apply more nuanced ethical approaches to solving public problems. And they will need to take ever more efficient approaches to allocating public goods and securing public services.

The challenges of the next 30 years seem deeper and more di cult than those we have tackled to date. Local government managers need to be less attentive to the internal dynamics of their organisation.

They need to care less about professional codes and more about the communities they serve. To achieve this, managers will need to heighten their compassion and deepen their empathy.

Second, they will need to develop better, more appropriate ethics for public action, public decision making and service delivery. Third, in an ageing society and in a climate of scarce resources, local government services will need to be ever more efficient.

The desire for empathy

Everyone desires the empathy of others. We want recognition, but we also want the warm acceptance of our individuality and dignity.

And as robots and automation take over the routinised aspects of future work, we need to make sure humans will be freed to do what only they can do – provide authentic connection to other humans.

This is important in those services that are heavily dependent on people, such as education, health care and social care. But sadly, over several decades, many of these services have become overly enmeshed in processes and techniques that have walled off the service provider from the service user.

Therefore local government staff will need to develop their capabilities for engaging their communities and their service users with improved empathy.

This is not just in how they interact but in how they first engage with people’s needs, wants and preferences. Co-design and co-production only occur when the interests of communities and service users are properly at the front and centre of service design.

The demand of ethics

In local government, ends and means are intertwined and equally important. That’s because in taking public interest questions forward, issues of procedural justice, fairness, equity and due process are critical. General demands for ‘fairness’ mask complicated questions that cannot be glossed over or avoided.

The differences between distributional justice and other forms of justice are one set of questions to be addressed. So too are differences that arise when trying to compare and measure competing claims on public resources and assets. Just consider the range of possible response to these two straightforward questions in, say, housing or educational policy:

  • “Which option is better for me personally?”
  • “Which option is better for everyone, all things considered?”

In a future of increasing social diversity and competing, if equally authentic, claims for public resources, the demands of public ethics will come to the forefront of local government challenges. Ethical fairness involves more than ‘treating everyone the same’ or simply being ‘consistent’.

The discipline of efficiency

Efficiency is becoming a hallmark capability for local government managers. It is no good having an authentic empathic working style and a solid understanding of ethics if the costs of services being managed are growing and their operational productivity is falling.

Over the next 30 years, efficiency measures will be continually required to lower costs and heighten productivity. This is easy to invoke but exceptionally hard to deliver.

Approaches to efficiency that rest on simple solutions are bound to fail. The ratchet effect of efficiency challenges year on year means that council managers will need to continually sharpen their capabilities with respect to delivering ever more efficient services.

In an ageing society, public revenues will be under enormous pressure over the coming 30 years. There will be raised expectations of public managers to do more for less. In practice they will have to do radically differently for much less.

In summary, the next 30 years will present very different challenges to a new generation of local government managers.

This will require a new suite of professional and personal capabilities. Councils will need to be both operationally competent and democratically legitimate. In particular they will need to be adaptive and responsive if they are to add value to their communities and remain relevant to those they serve.

To this end council managers and staff will need to possess new skills and fresh expertise as society changes and evolves. But they will also need to develop their capabilities in the three Es: empathy, ethics and efficiency.

Barry Quirk, chief executive, Kensington & Chelsea RBC. This article is based on a chapter by Barry Quirk in Reimagining The Public Sector Workforce (2019)

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