The public sector today: how the industry has changed

In our 2014 research paper, The 21st Century Public Servant we described public administrators as architects of their own position within an organisation. But as we approach 2020, what does the future that we are building in the public sector look like?

The role of the public sector has always been to serve the communities in which they operate. However, whilst this core ethos remains, the industry itself has moved on. The challenges a public servant faces today and the tools they need to have at their disposal to manage change have never been so diverse.

Digital transformation and automation

As with all industries, the public sector is being revolutionised by new technology and automation.

According to Dr Philip Whiteman, Programme Director for the Online Masters of Public Administration; “There is an ever-increasing drive for efficiency and effectiveness. Digitisation of public services will continue, and we will see the increased use of artificial intelligence especially in direct service delivery. With increasing consumerisation people expect more open access and faster delivery of services.”

These changes are already in effect, for example in the way we can book doctors’ appointments and report crimes via apps, to the digital signing of passport applications. In the US, the Department of Housing and Urban development are even looking at ways they can use technology and data analytics to help them tackle homelessness1.

Change management and the increase of AI

Being able to envisage the public services of the future and managing internal and external stakeholders through these changes at a leadership level is critical.

Whilst some administrative and operational roles are likely to be replaced by automation in the coming years, we are seeing exciting new roles being created within public services. Within Deloitte’s Future of work in Government report, they discuss how “as government agencies experience first-hand how automation is impacting their organisations, we’re having more conversations about what government roles will look like. We’ve envisioned a few new government jobs of the future, such as Smart Base Commander or Talent Cloud Coordinator, in 2025.”2

However, the rise of automation in the public sector comes with a caution: “If you have a mess and automate it, you have an automated mess”3 says David Cowan in his article ‘automation and public sector jobs’. A fantastic quote highlighting the need for public administrators to look at the bigger picture and take a strategic and mindful approach to change.

Recommended read: Technology developments in the public sector


The commercialisation of the public sector - the delivery of services by a public body in a way which results in making profit or reducing costs4 - has created some interesting new opportunities within the industry.

According to a report published by Zurich Municipal “all public sector bodies face a range of challenges as they adjust to a more commercial way of operating – from making sure they have the right skillsets to ensuring their social purpose is not diluted. There now needs to be a level of business acumen that has never existed before.” 5

This change in focus is enabling public administrators to widen their remits and develop a range of transferable skills. Teams are now looking at ways to generate economies of scale and efficiency savings, generating revenue through trading profitable services, exploring new options to ensure value for money and encouraging wider innovation and collaboration.6

The merge of private sector principles with the public sector ethos requires those leading public services in 2020 and beyond to have a broad range of professional attributes. They are required to run a commercial business operation whilst still serving the communities in which they operate – something which the Local Government Association describes as ‘profit with a purpose.’7

Economic and political uncertainty

Our political and economic environment is becoming increasingly unpredictable. In a recent interview, Online Masters of Public Administration Programme Director Dr Philip Whiteman discussed how the public sector is faced with a “perpetual carousel of rapidly changing policy demands” from the Government.

“Where the political environment impacts upon everybody is through the externalities of politics” says Dr Whiteman. “We still have the legacy of austerity which has led to tightly constrained public services being dictated to in terms of the amount of taxation you can receive as public organisations. The same goes for Brexit. There are known unknowns about Brexit and the impact that will have on public servants. People are spending a lot of time on contingency plans in readiness for leaving the European Union.”

Those working within public administration are also dealing with the increased politicising of public services, particularly the NHS. Saffron Cordery, Deputy Chief Executive at NHS Providers warned politicians in November 2019 not to pledge investments unless they will follow through.8

This environment presents a wealth of opportunities for those who thrive within challenging and fast paced situations. To meet the demands of such an unpredictability, Dr Whiteman says the public administrators of the future need to be able to react to political changes with ‘entrepreneurial vigour’. Those who are successful are ‘agile and resilient organisations who are rapidly able to adapt to not just current but also future challenges’.

The University of Birmingham’s Online Masters of Public Administration equips recent graduates and public sector professionals with the skills needed to deliver social value within an increasingly complex world. If you are interested in returning to study via distance learning, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team.

1KELKAR, M. (2019) Addressing homelessness with data analytics [online] Available at < > [Accessed 15.11.19]
²HELFRICH, D. (2019) Five top trends for the public sector in 2019 [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12.11.19]
³COWAN, D. (2018) Automation and Public Sector Jobs [online] Available at <> [Accessed 17.11.19]
⁴UNKNOWN (2019) Browne Jacobson’s guide to government sector commercialisation [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.11.19]
⁵UNKNOWN (2019) Zurich Municipal The challenges of public sector commercialisation [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.11.19]
⁶UNKNOWN (2019) Browne Jacobson’s guide to government sector commercialisation [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12.11.19]
⁷UNKNOWN (2019) Local Government Association Profit with a purpose – delivering social value through commercial activity [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 17.11.19]
⁸WEEKS, R. (2019) ITV News NHS bosses warn MPs not to politicise health service during General Election campaign [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15.11.19]