Home / News / Business Of Life /  Zeger van der Wal: ‘Public managers’ in a Vuca world


Being a “public manager" in a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Vuca) is no easy task. Those working in the government, aka public managers, are expected to perform on a par with managers in the private sector, yet the facilities, training and issue resolutions are often not comparable. The working environment in which a public manager functions has its share of challenges, often unknown and unexpected, says Zeger van der Wal, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

His new book, The 21st Century Public Manager, addresses the key trends, challenges and opportunities facing public managers across contexts and regimes. In an email interview, he explains the kind of roles a 21st century manager has to play to succeed and stay relevant. Edited excerpts:

What are the ideal characteristics of the 21st century public manager?

Smart, savvy, and astute: The 21st century public managers will not thrive because of seniority, or because they were designated as important or powerful in the past. Rather than using either hard power or soft power skills, they need to use “smart power" as former Harvard dean Joseph Nye argues, combining IQ, EQ and CQ or contextual intelligence.

They need to be entrepreneurial, to some extent even commercial, in seeking out opportunities and starting ventures across sectors. In doing this, public managers have to walk a fine line. They must be entrepreneurial but cannot become full-blooded entrepreneurs chasing a limited group of profitable or “easy" clients. Instead, they must smartly target certain segments of stakeholders in the early stages of new projects, pilots and idea generation, early adaptors, without losing sight of accessibility for all segments of society at a later stage.

Current public managers realize they won’t get anything done by being hierarchical, silo-ed, protectionist and monopolistic. They have to invite, enable and allow others to participate in processes of public problem-solving, increasingly including laymen citizens. At the same time, however, authority, responsibility and accountability for addressing social issues will largely remain with public managers and their political masters.

They will have to convincingly operate on various stages, both in the spotlight as well as behind the scenes, and find ways to connect “now" and “future" logics and timelines, by showing political masters and other key stakeholders how investing in long-term planning and anticipation will also help them to do better in the “now", to address and account for crises and scandals.

The 21st Century Public Manager: Zeger van der Wal, Palgrave, 389 pages, $47 (around Rs3,100).
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The 21st Century Public Manager: Zeger van der Wal, Palgrave, 389 pages, $47 (around Rs3,100).

Every manager, public or private, must get ready to deal with Generation Z workers. How does one adapt to this new generation?

Like any generation before them, millennials (or Gen Y-ers; those born after 1982) and Gen Z-ers—those born after 1994—are motivated by a complex and dynamic mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Public agencies have to offer balanced packages and opportunities that speak to both types of motivators. However, studies on sector-switching dynamics suggests that while opportunities to make fast promotions and acquire heavier responsibilities are important early in careers, competitive compensation is more important later, and investment in training and development is important throughout Gen Y and Gen Z careers.

Public managers will have to ensure that those in the new workforce continue to feel that they are taken seriously by providing them with constant feedback, training and learning opportunities, and individualized career perspectives. Also, public managers will need to engage in a variety of (reverse) mentoring practices and programmes. Evidence shows reverse mentoring makes all generations, who are increasingly co-dependent, feel more appreciated and useful. Gen Z-ers can teach 55-year-olds how to launch policy campaigns on Twitter whereas senior employees can advise the youngsters about combining a family with a career.

Among the largest challenges in developing countries are scarce resources, paucity of talent and social issues. What can the 21st century public manager do to bring in change and innovation?

Public managers across the globe are under immense pressure to do things better, smarter and cheaper. They are forced to innovate to prove to stakeholders their existence even matters at all. At the same time, tolerance for failure and experimentation with taxpayer’s money is minimal. They have to take baby steps to improve the lives of citizens and create public value. In contrast to private sector innovation, strategic “copy pasting" is perfectly acceptable as a public sector innovation strategy.

Pooja Singh
Pooja Singh is a features editor at Mint Lounge based in New Delhi. She writes on luxury, fashion, culture and sustainability.
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