Blurry photo of bright orange and white lights.

How to develop 21st century public managers?

Julkaistu Tero Vuorinen


The Renewing Public Sector – Enabling Public Leadership –training program (Uudistuva julkinen sektori – Mahdollistava johtaminen -koulutusohjelma) organized by HAUS Finnish Institute of Public Management started last week. We had an honor to have Professor Zeger van der Wal visiting our course and teaching us about key skills of Public Managers.

Zeger van der Wal is a Dutchman living and working in Asia (Associate Professor Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore & Affiliate Chair Professor Leiden University). He travels the world comparing countries, and their systems, people, and cultures both as a scholar and global citizen. He is a widely recognized lecturer, researcher, and consultant in public management, specializing in ethics and good governance, stakeholder analysis, and strategic HRM.

His highly acclaimed book The 21st Century Public Manager was published in April 2017. It has received positive accolades in newspapers, magazines, and top journals in the field, from the US to India, to Korea, Russia, Australia, China, and the Netherlands.

Professor Zeger van der Wal


After his visit, we had a chance to interview Zeger.

Zeger, what kind of themes you see as most relevant when considering the training of public managers?

Increasingly, public managers operate in a VUCA world – characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The VUCA world offers many challenges but at the same time unlimited opportunities for innovative, effective, and citizen-centric service delivery.

Public managers are answerable to various stakeholders with their own distinct agendas and powers: colleagues and bosses, parent and sister agencies, political parties and politicians, private companies, citizens and civil society groups as well as international actors and organizations. If they manage to leverage the strengths, expertise, and added (financial) value offered by these stakeholders, while overcoming various collaborative challenges, they are able to produce more ‘public value’ at less cost.

Indeed, while being mindful of the uniqueness of public management, a central notion of 21st century management life is the increased need for public, private, and non-profit managers to collaborate in addressing contemporary challenges.

I think there are many interesting questions to answer, such as can all existing public servants become “21st century public managers”? Are some people more talented or hardwired than others? And how do public sector organizations recruit, train, and develop 21st century public managers? Should they replace the current cohort that largely consists of ‘20th century public managers’ or are there more realistic and gradual approaches?

Surely, the design of training and management development (MD) programs needs to take into account that a decade from now, typical public service careers will look dramatically different from today, even in countries like India. Sector switching and job switching will increase, with five years in one organization considered a lifetime to younger generations.

While retaining and incentivizing high-potentials, organizations will need to continuously invest just as much, or maybe even more, in senior employees who have to stay employed into their late sixties while staying motivated to walk the extra mile.

Thus, to produce maximal return on investment, training and development programs need to smartly target junior as well as senior high-potentials. This is even more important as newer generations consider investment in their future-readiness and career development through training programs an increasingly important incentive for performing well and committing to their employer; in fact, for staying around at all.

Trainee programs and “candidacy training” are important, but organizations must also become more inventive in retaining high-potentials. Experience in various countries shows that many of these individuals leave within their first few years on the job for better opportunities elsewhere, or because of disappointment with a system that is not as ‘new’ and ‘cool’ as it brands itself.

Lastly, while training is important, experience is king.

To gain such experience, and to enable employees in doing so, I suggest that aspiring 21st century public managers and agencies take into account the following five suggestions:

  1. The amount of time spent in the field or in a specific agency remains key (with the average time spent in the same function, role, or agency likely to continuously decrease);
  2. While experience may be a good teacher in itself, this is not so much the case in dysfunctional systems, creating serious issues for HR managers in such systems;
  3. (Reverse) mentoring provides hands-on opportunities to experience how systems operate, and identify skills gaps and training and development needs of individuals and teams;
  4. Rotational opportunities and experiences – including (overseas) study trips, ‘secondments’ to the political, private sector, or non-profit domain, and participation in peer networks and long-term experiential training programs – all widen the views of (aspiring) public managers, challenge current assumptions, and provide exposure to potential collaborators, competitors, or adversaries in other sectors and countries;
  5. Critical, transparent, and high-quality feedback and appraisal systems that combine qualitative and quantitative assessment, and include individual and collective exercises and indicators, produce more competent and conscious managers.

The way I see it, organizations like HAUS and the current Renewal reform project in the Finnish public sector have a key role to play in making public leaders and their institutions more future proof.

It has been great to be a part of the leadership training offerings and alumni events so far, and I hope many will follow!

The 21st Century Public Manager is  on and on

Tero Vuorinen Program director