7 skills for a successful career in public services

Author
Jemma Smith, Editor
Posted
February, 2019

It's a competitive field to work in, but if you're hoping to start a career in the public sector the right skills could work to your advantage

According to High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2019 report, public sector employers are expected to provide one of the biggest increases in vacancies in the UK graduate market in 2019. However, while more opportunities may arise, roles are still competitive and you'll need to stand out from the crowd to be considered.

We asked three experts to identify the seven most important skills for a successful career in the public services and administration sector.

1. Problem solving and critical thinking

'Public sector employers need graduates who can explore the root cause of problems, use their critical analysis skills to understand complex phenomena and offer and implement solutions,' explains Dr Jennifer Law, principal lecturer of BA Public Services at the University of South Wales. 'Students can develop these skills in a range of ways through academic study, helping to run a student society, being a course representative or through work experience.'

2. Communication

'Communication skills are crucial to building relationships with service users, colleagues and collaborative partners,' says Dr Law. 'You'll need to be able to persuade and explain effectively, listen well and vary your verbal and writing style to get your point across. Students can develop these skills while at university, presenting and writing in different forms. They'll also get the chance to practice speaking and listening in group activities, seminars and workshops.'

3. The ability to influence others through reasoned argument

'Verbal skills are essential because, while people read reports, actual decisions are made through discourse in meetings, whether on a one-to-one basis or in large committees,' says Dr Hans Schlappa, programme director MSc Leadership and Management in Public Services at the Hertfordshire Business School. 'Being able to synthesise complex information and express your own interpretation of this in a clear and coherent way is the skill that opens the door to the top in this sector.' You can practice constructing a reasoned argument and communicating your opinions effectively by joining your university's debating society.

4. Respect for hierarchy

'We often hear that hierarchy is a thing of the past but rumours of its death are an exaggeration, not least in the public services,' explains Dr Adrian Campbell, senior lecturer and convenor of the Masters in Public Administration at the University of Birmingham. 'Be sensitive to differences in job title, status and professional background when dealing with colleagues. Deference isn't needed, but diplomacy is.'

5. Resilience

'Public services are changing rapidly and people working within this fast-moving environment need to be resilient,' says Dr Law. 'This incorporates the ability to bounce back from difficulties, take a positive approach to change, and to persevere and cope with pressure effectively.'

6. The ability to work collaboratively

'Public service organisations are increasingly recognising that solutions to pressing problems, such as the gap in life expectancy between the richest and the poorest and the need to plan for the needs of the growing population, involve more than one organisation,' says Dr Law. 'Graduates can develop skills such as understanding the perspective of others, building relationships and influencing and negotiating by working with others during their time at university or through part-time or voluntary work.'

Dr Campbell agrees. 'One of the most prized skills in public service is the ability to work across boundaries with other public agencies or with external partners. This involves learning the language or jargon of the other party, understanding how they see the world, being co-operative but also being clear about what outcomes you need from co-operation.'

7. Leadership

'Leading without controlling others is a key demand made on public sector managers,' explains Dr Schlappa. 'Placing one's actions within a strategic framework helps those who are involved understand the rationale for the direction of travel.'

Find out more