The government will need new, collaborative roles within its workforce, management experts argue.

The government will need new, collaborative roles within its workforce, management experts argue. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A fresh look at the federal workforce and the skills needed to solve today’s pressing problems

COMMENTARY | A new book offers a roadmap for recruiting and training employees who can build bridges within government and across sectors.

The federal government needs a new approach to solving the country’s biggest problems, from homelessness to vaccine development, argues the newest book from consultant William D. Eggers and public management scholar Donald F. Kettl, published in May. The common theme in this approach is collaboration—across federal agencies, with state and local governments, and with the private and non-profit sectors. Importantly, this fresh approach will require a new way of thinking about the federal workforce, Eggers and Kettl suggest in Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems (Harvard Business Review Press).  

How can government cultivate these bridgebuilders, who will cross boundaries to transform governance from hierarchies to collaborative networks, from process to mission, and from fuzzy responsibility to accountability for results?   

Based on the reality of blended government, Eggers and Kettl offer an intriguing redefinition of what constitutes the new “public workforce.” Instead of the traditional distinction between civil servants and contractors, they describe a public workforce consisting of “partnership talent (employees who are part of joint ventures), borrowed talent (employees of contractors), freelance talent (independent, individual contractors), and open-source talent (people who don’t work for government at all but are part of a value chain of services).” 

They recommend specific actions government leaders can take to establish this new public workforce, starting with developing the careers of civil servants around “bridgebuilding.” Federal officials should create positions for public-private bridgebuilders and define what success in these roles would look like, Eggers and Kettl suggest. Policy-makers should also facilitate easier movement into and out of government, through special hiring authorities and by creating opportunities for short-term public service assignments through existing and new fellowship programs, the authors say.

To bring about a collaborative society working on national problems, specific new bridgebuilding roles for public servants would include:

  • Integrators who would build the ecosystem for participants to work together;
  • Problem solvers who would work out solutions for particular problems;
  • Enablers who would eliminate barriers to collaboration;
  • Motivators who would provide incentives for collaboration; and,
  • Convenors who would assemble a wide range of players and foster effective collaboration.

These roles offer intriguing possibilities for the government of the future. Could a new classification system be created for the five roles? Could current government positions be reclassified to reflect the reality of how employees actually spend their time? There are agencies, such as the Housing and Urban Development Department, in which many civil servants are already functioning in one (or more) of the roles suggested in Bridgebuilders.

Could the five roles serve as a recruiting tool for future public servants? Younger employees, many of whom have spent much time participating on social networks, might be very intrigued about a newly created position as a convenor or integrator. 

Eggers and Kettl join a growing number of government experts who argue that an updated model of public service is needed to implement new approaches to solving national problems in a blended government. In her recent book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, University College London economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that civil servants need to take more risks and be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. Mazzucato advocates dramatic changes in how civil servants are trained, how their performance is assessed and how they are promoted. 

In another recent book, Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change the World, Beth Simone Noveck, a professor at Northeastern University, describes the need for more mission-driven leaders who are agile, focused on data and human centered. Noveck argues that the federal and state governments need to articulate a vision for training their public servants in 21st century ways of working and addressing public problems. 

Much like Mazzucato and Noveck, Eggers and Kettl argue that public servants need new skills to succeed in blended, collaborative government. The final section of Bridgebuilders contains a syllabus on how government can train civil servants for the new world of blended, collaborative work with partners inside and outside of government. Eggers and Kettl set forth a compelling roadmap for all sectors to begin to develop an increased number of bridgebuilders to meet the demands of the 21st century. 

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is