7 skills for a successful career in public services

Jemma Smith, Editor
February, 2018

While jobs in the public sector are widely available they are highly competitive. For the best chance of employment, make sure you hone these sought-after skills

With the right skillset you'll be able to take advantage of the numerous opportunities on offer within the public sector. We asked three experts to identify the seven most important skills for a successful career in public services.

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 can offer and implement solutions,' explains Dr Jennifer Law, principle lecturer 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 key to building relationships with service users, colleagues and collaborative partners,' says Dr Law. 'You will 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 will 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 meetings held by 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 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.'

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