In many countries around the world, the public sector career path has long attracted talent for very different motivations: from having a strong sense of mission and community service to seeking predictability and stability in one’s professional life; from being motivated to work on “big topics” that move national agendas to favoring a less competitive work environment than can often be offered in the private sector. In some countries, public sector employment has been highly selective and prestigious; in others, it was historically seen as a “safe haven” career.
In recent years, however, we have seen an unprecedented trend in many countries among young high potentials and experienced private sector leaders alike to consciously seek out career opportunities in the public sector. Catalyzed by the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, which sparked results-oriented talents to reflect about their career and how they would like to spend their working time going forward, public sector as a career field has gained significant attention due to a unique combination of offerings previously undervalued.
Interest in Public Service Careers Is on the Rise – Here’s Why
High potential leaders are trying to be the change they want to see in the world more than ever, motivated by creating a better world for generations to come. But this doesn’t mean they don’t strive for financial stability at all – in fact, 8 in 10 respondents of Egon Zehnder’s recent Generational study desire to have a financially stable job, which is often offered in public service careers. However, in the past, a stable paycheck could compensate for shortcomings in company culture or a less interesting or impactful job profile and lack of mission or a “higher purpose.” Today, top talents and driven executives prioritize purpose as never before and scrutinize employers according to their values, impact and what they do outside of generating financial returns. Therefore, public sector often appears on the career radar of talent pools who in the past would not have considered it.
Leaders in public service get to address some of the most pressing human challenges of our time. By leading critical work in areas such as policy analysis, data science, community engagement, sustainability, DEI, and others, they can contribute to innovative solutions that have a real impact on their own and their fellow citizens’ lives as well as the future of their societies. Bold and innovative solutions are required to address the most complex global issues, from climate change to harnessing the power of AI, from socio-demographic changes to global health systems. These multi-faceted and complex topics need proactive employees who are just as courageous in developing and piloting solutions as they are in driving their implementation. Gone are the days of the stereotypical "dark room" job with piles of paperwork with little room for innovation. Today, in many countries, the sector is on a transformation journey to becoming an agile, responsive, and disruptive environment that places citizens at the heart of everything it does. Examples of this can be found for example in the Middle East, where ambitious national transformation and development agendas such as Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, Dubai Economic Agenda D33, Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, the UAE’s Green Agenda 2030 and many others lay out the ambitions and plans of highly aspirational and driven governments for the future of their citizens.
Contributing to such a mission appeals particularly to younger generations, who are increasingly drawn to public service as a way to live more fulfilling lives and achieve something truly meaningful with their professional careers. According to our Generational study we previously mentioned, 7 out of 10 Millennials and nearly 6 out of 10 Gen-Zers would leave their jobs in the pursuit of meaning at work. This finding also holds true for two-thirds of all respondents across every generation in the study.
Another compelling attraction of the public sector career is the platform and scale for experimentation it offers. People who are willing to experiment and push back on the status quo can thrive in many public sector environments where they will find others who are similarly motivated to embrace new ways of thinking and problem solving. It’s not always easy but it is a unique platform to innovate. An example of this is Singapore’s GovTech, which encompasses services such as a national digital identity and national sensor network, making it highly attractive to talent from major tech companies. Related to this is the ownership of ideas. In the government sector in Singapore, talented individuals have the opportunity to take full ownership of product management and engineering rollout for national digital identity platforms, as opposed to working on just a small portion of the overall product, which is often the reality in tech companies.
These developments have put the public sector in competition with the private sector for the same pool of driven, career-oriented individuals who would like to continuously learn, grow and be challenged in their careers. In some countries, this has led to a much higher fluidity of career moves from private to public sector and vice-versa than before. This fluidity is likely to further increase as new generations enter the workforce. Additionally, some leaders are intentionally seeking public service posts as a closing to a successful private sector career in order to give back or an interlude between roles. As much as the private sector benefits from the ‘greater good mindset’ and a servant leadership mentality, the public sector in turn benefits from a strong customer-service understanding and innovation drive characteristic of many private sector leadership requirements.
Navigating Challenges and Limitations
Like with any career path, executives in public service face their unique set of challenges. Because they are dedicated to serving society, they may deal with a constant stream of feedback and criticism from a varied set of stakeholders, as part of the role. Moreover, the public sector may also carry certain levels of bureaucracy and red tape that can frustrate even the most driven and innovative individuals. Global trends and citizens’ requirements often change much faster than policies, systems or processes allow for. As an example, harnessing the opportunities in the use of AI and machine learning, crypto currencies, data security or even the implementation of environmental sustainability all drive public services globally into new and uncharted territories.
Public service employees often have to innovate on the spot yet not immediately see the results of their actions. They have to be able to visualize and work for the future at times without need for instant gratification. Smartly delivering excellence as a public leader therefore entails the ability to deal with polarities such as balancing short-term needs and political considerations with long-term development priorities while being under close observation of the media and citizens.
The Talent Landscape: Drawing Lessons from the Private Sector
The transformation of the public sector is in motion, and it's clear that to realize its full potential, a shift in the talent landscape is necessary. While the journey has commenced, the path to true reform entails acquiring skillsets akin to those prevalent in the private sector, coupled with a profound sense of higher purpose.
Public administration executives must be resilient, adaptable, and empathetic, able to work collaboratively with a wide range of stakeholders, from government officials to community organizations and citizens. They must also be committed to ethical principles and have a deep understanding of policy and its implications for society.
Drawing from the private sector, a new hallmark of good public service leadership is leaders’ ability and willingness to develop and mentor the next generation. Some innovative governments, for instance, have embedded this competency as part of their evaluation criteria. While this new focus on people development has historically been unusual in the public sector across most countries, it now has the potential to become a best practice globally.
By investing in leaders who are genuine talent developers as well as in talent development systems themselves, government institutions can attract and retain the best and brightest individuals. This also enables these institutions to create a pipeline of future leaders who are committed to driving positive change in society.
A Rewarding Career Path
Public service is becoming a highly attractive career that offers a unique way to have meaningful impact for purpose driven executives. In many countries, public service today offers a fast-paced environment that is highly conducive to innovation, experimentation, professional development, and challenging the status quo.
As both younger generations and seasoned executives from the private sector consider this career, it’s worth remembering that no matter the challenge at hand, they will be surrounded by a community of like-minded individuals—each with their unique backgrounds, personalities, and life experiences—who share a common desire to craft a better future.