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The public manager in the 21st century

Managers in the public and semi-public sector work in an increasingly complex and unpredictable environment, which demands new knowledge and competences but also offers tremendous opportunities. This will be the view presented by Zeger van der Wal, professor by special appointment in Public Administration, in his inaugural lecture on 3 March.

The government today is not the same as the government a few decades ago, which means that the role of the public manager in the 21st century is also changing. This is due to several major trends, which have now gained momentum and are intensifying each other, explains Zeger van der Wal. ‘Look at the incredibly fast technological developments in recent years, for instance. It’s a challenge in itself just to keep up with them, while at the same time these developments give citizens and other stakeholders the means to measure the government more directly and to monitor it with a critical eye.’ This puts great pressure on government organisations to make their own innovations. Van der Wal: ‘People don’t understand why there can be a new iPhone every year, but it takes twenty years to build a Metro line. This is perhaps not entirely a fair comparison, but it illustrates the field of tension in which public managers have to operate.’

VUCA environment

It is precisely on this field of tension that Van der Wal will concentrate, as professor by special appointment to the Ien Dales endowed chair. This chair focuses on ‘The government as labour organisation’ and is supported by the CAOP, the Dutch knowledge and service centre for labour affairs. ‘The government has much more to deal with now than twenty years ago.’ In the past, the government had more control over its work environment, and public managers were seen more as the people with the relevant knowledge. These days, however, public managers are working in a VUCA environment, to use the management term for it. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Van der Wal explains: ‘The environment is unpredictable because leadership changes are happening more often: a minister steps down, a government falls. This also causes changes in policy, creating more uncertainty in the work. Another factor is that authority, expertise and power are constantly under pressure in any case. And the work field is becoming more complex all the time, because you have to cooperate with more and more parties, such as citizens or companies.’

Political smartness

The question is what roles and qualities are important for a public manager in this 21st century VUCA environment. One of those qualities, says Van der Wal, is political smartness, or perhaps more accurately: cunning. ‘Public managers are increasingly confronted with capricious or populist politicians who make promises that simply can’t be kept.’ On the one hand, they must stand firm enough to offer resistance, for instance if implementing a proposal would be impossible on constitutional grounds. On the other hand, they must not be only an ‘obstructive power’ (hindermacht). ‘This has always been a balancing act, but maintaining the right balance is now more important than ever. The modern public manager needs to both understand and respect the political game.’

New media

A relatively new competence that public managers must master, says Van der Wal, is skilful handling of new (social) media, which play an ever greater role in communication not only with citizens but also with other collaborative parties. ‘There are many different platforms, each with their own language and mores. You have to learn to understand and use them, not only in a defensive way but also for actively checking plans, presenting ideas or disseminating information. Public managers must be social media-literate, as it were.’

Engaging all generations

Is Van der Wal not mainly describing qualities and skills of the younger generations here? Is the 21st century public manager by definition a millennial? ‘Absolutely not,’ he insists. ‘It’s actually very important to have people from all generations within the government, so that both mentoring and reverse mentoring can take place.’ Younger generations can teach their older colleagues social media skills, while older generations know a lot about the culture in the organisation, or can share experiences about combining work and family. ‘Companies are increasingly working with innovative programmes in HR, for instance, where the older employees share their skills with the younger ones, and vice versa,’ says Van der Wal. ‘You have to make sure that all generations work together.’

Challenges and opportunities

The work environment for managers in a semi-public organisation today can only be described as difficult. But this also offers many opportunities, thinks Van de Wal, and it’s certainly still great to be a public manager in the 21st century. ‘If you’re inspired by the content of your work, by solving puzzles and questions to make the country just a little better – and that’s true for many public managers – then this environment actually motivates you.’ The main thing is to see the challenges as opportunities. ‘Then there are countless possibilities for making policy and services in a faster, more efficient and better way.’

In touch with practice

Van der Wal sees that the practical field is eager for knowledge about the public manager’s new role. He is therefore looking forward immensely to starting the research and teaching in his endowed chair. ‘Working with the Institute of Public Administration and the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs in the beautiful new Wijnhaven location, and with the CAOP, which supports the chair, I will be in the very epicentre of my discipline, you might say: in the midst of the government departments.’ A unique situation that offers many excellent opportunities to carry out research and teaching closely related to the practical field. ‘That’s why this chair is ideal for me: I always want to keep in touch with practice.’