Catherine Needham in the Guardian: “When Kent county council was looking to save money a couple of years ago, it hit upon the idea of merging the roles of library manager and registrar. Library managers were expected to register births and deaths on top of their existing duties, and registrars took on roles in libraries. One former library manager chose to leave the service as a result. It wasn’t, he said, what he signed up for: “I don’t associate the skills in running a library with those of a registrar. I don’t have the emotional skill to do it.”
Since the council was looking to cut staff numbers, it was probably not too troubled by his departure. But this does raise questions about how to support staff who are being asked to work well beyond their professional boundaries.
In our 21st Century Public Servant project at the University of Birmingham, we have found that this trend is evident across public services. We interviewed local government managers who said staff needed to think differently about their skills. As one put it: “We need to use people’s latent talent – if you are a librarian, for example, a key skill will be working with people from the local community. It’s about a different background mindset: ‘I am not just here to do a specific job, but to help the people of this town.'”
The skills of this generic public service worker include interpersonal skills (facilitation, empathy, political skills), analysing skills (sorting evidence, making judgements, offering critique and being creative), organisation (particularly for group work and collaboration) and communication skills (such as using social media and multimedia resources).
The growing interest in genericism seems to have two main drivers. The first, of course, is austerity. Cost cutting on an unprecedented scale in local authorities requires those staff that survive the waves of redundancies to be willing to take on new roles and work in multi-purpose settings. The second is the drive for whole-person approaches in which proper engagement with the public might require staff to cross traditional sector boundaries.
It is good that public service workers are being granted greater flexibility. But there are two main limitations to this move to greater genericism. The first is that multi-tasking in an era of cost cutting can look a lot like deprofessionalisation. Within social work, for example, concerns have been expressed about the downgrading of social work posts (by appointing brokers in their place, say) and the resulting loss of professional skills and knowledge.
A second limitation is that skills training continues to be sectoral, failing to catch up with the move to genericism….”