Megatrends and the future of work for public sector leaders and educators

Mahabat Baimyrzaeva (Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Monterey, California, USA)
Carolyn Taylor Meyer (Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Monterey, California, USA) (Human and Organizational Studies, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California, USA)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 25 November 2020

Issue publication date: 12 April 2021




This article asks (1) what megatrends are likely to significantly influence public sector roles and in what ways and (2) how might higher education institutions better prepare public sector leaders for the future shaped by these trends. While public sector leadership in every region, country and locality is unique, they are exposed to the same set of global megatrends. Therefore, this article teases out general insights, observations and implications for public sector leaders and educators by focusing on the effects of these trends.


The article is informed by a review and synthesis of relevant academic and practitioner sources and is complemented by the authors' survey (n = 64) of public affairs practitioners and educators. The survey is not representative and is used to supplement other inferences from the literature.


The key megatrends reshaping public sector jobs include demographic and climate changes, technological advances and deepening social fragmentation. The confluence of such trends has increasingly strained the public sector's capacity to respond to present challenges, let alone prepare for the future. The future public sector leaders can benefit from new competencies, including ability to think systematically, see the big picture and ability to solve complex problems. Ideally, they would also have a strong capacity to foster collaboration and cohesion among diverse stakeholders, to model ethical and inclusive behavior, to accommodate, facilitate and bridge competing and conflicting viewpoints and become creative innovators and doers who can operate in increasingly complex environments, while navigating and reshaping their governments' outdated institutional structures.

Research limitations/implications

The key trends reshaping public sector jobs include environmental, demographic and technological factors and deepening social fragmentation. The confluence of such factors has increasingly strained the public sector's capacity to respond to present challenges, let alone prepare for the future. The authors observe that the future of public sector practitioners may benefit from new competencies including digital and data fluency, high emotional intelligence, who are also big picture thinkers who understand global megatrends and their impacts locally. Ideally, they would have a strong capacity to foster cohesion among fragmented and polarized communities, to model ethical and inclusive behavior, to accommodate, facilitate and bridge diverse viewpoints and become creative innovators and doers who can operate in increasingly complex environments, while navigating and reshaping their governments' outdated institutional structures.

Practical implications

The megatrends listed above have significant implications for public sector leaders and educators who train them.

Social implications

There is a new awareness about the need to train public sector workers on diversity and inclusion issues. This paper discusses global trends through this lens.


This synthesis of the literature from academic and practitioner sources, supplemented with the original survey of educators and professionals, intends to open up a conversation about the future of public affairs leadership and education.



Baimyrzaeva, M. and Meyer, C.T. (2021), "Megatrends and the future of work for public sector leaders and educators", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 178-195.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caught many public sector leaders by surprise. Regardless of their economic powers, political orientation and location, all governments were forced to respond to the same factor. This pandemic is only one element among many global trends that are increasingly affecting societies and governments throughout the world, regardless of their differences. Cascading disruptions from a confluence of several megatrends are expected to test public sector leaders in the coming years and decades. These include demographic and climate changes, technological advances and a growing social fragmentation accompanied by democratic erosion. In this environment, most governments, designed for the industrial age, are unprepared for the challenges that come with this scale of change (Agarwal, 2018).

This article reviews these global trends with the purpose of drawing general observations and implications for public sector leaders and educators, so that they are better prepared for tomorrow. It asks (1) what trends are likely to significantly influence public sector roles and in what ways and (2) how might higher education institutions better prepare public sector leaders for the future shaped by these trends. This is not a prescriptive article given the vast diversity of local contexts. It is meant to open a conversation about common trends and draws general observations about the education of tomorrow's public sector leaders.

Megatrends are powerful forces that can have transformative effects on societies and economies globally. The emphasis in what constitutes a megatrend varies by industry and sector, but they often encompass more than one trend. For example, technological advances, one of the megatrends discussed, impact nearly all countries and encompass other trends, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digitization of goods and services that are expected to transform societies (Kelly, 2017).

The research methodology

Although there is abundant literature on the future of work in the private sector, only over the last several years have select governments, think tanks and intergovernmental organizations started focusing on this question directly. Academia's investigation of “large forces” affecting the broader society tended to look backward through examining history (Roberts, 2013) with less attention to the future with some exceptions (Pollitt, 2016; Kettl, 2015; National Academy of Public Administration, 2018).

Therefore, the article reviewed and synthesized relevant resources, weaving together academic and practitioner research studies using the thematic analysis. The selection process started with relevant public affairs journal articles and books. Then, the literature review zoomed out to include specialized reports from reputable global organizations that have already been looking into megatrends closely. These include influential intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations (2019), the International Labor Organization (2019), the World Bank (2019) and the European Commission (Vesnic-Alujevic et al., 2019); think tanks and research centers such as the World Economic Forum (2018), Pew Research Center (2019) and Brookings Institution (Kerry, 2019) and major consulting firms like Deloitte (Eggers et al., 2019). In addition, the article used insights from governments that have been most proactive about preparing for the future, as exemplified by the Nordic Council of Ministers' “Nordic Future of Work” report (Dølvik and Steen, 2018) and OSCE's “Future of Government 2030+” (Vesnic-Alujevic et al., 2019).

To complement these sources, the authors also conducted a survey of 64 educators and practitioners of public affairs and public administration in the USA and abroad in July through October 2019. The survey was distributed to the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) 2019 conference participants by the conference organizers. The authors also circulated it among their own contacts. Only 64 participants responded, indicating the following countries where they are currently working (not citizenship): the USA including Puerto Rico (46), Taiwan (6), two each from Kazakhstan, Argentina and Chile and one each from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico. A total of 29 participants identified as educators in public affairs, 16 as educators and practitioners and 18 identified as practitioners. The survey was designed using a combination of closed- and open-ended questions developed based on a literature review. The first part of the survey asked all respondents the following key questions: “What do you consider to be the most important drivers of changes in public affairs practice over the next 10–20 years in the country where you are currently working?” “What competencies will public affairs practitioners need to master most in the next 10–20 years to respond to these challenges?” “What should educators do differently to better prepare students for future public affairs jobs in light of the changes mentioned above?” The survey also asked them to provide a rationale for their answers to each of these three questions. In addition, six more questions were asked only of educators in public affairs what they are doing differently in “what” and “how” they teach in order to better prepare students for changes in public affairs careers, as well as what competencies they think will increase and decrease in importance over the next 10–20 years. The analysis of the responses to the closed-ended questions relied on frequency counts, while responses to the open-ended questions relied on the thematic analysis.

The respondent pool is not large, diverse or representative enough to use the survey responses as stand-alone empirical evidence. At the same time, the respondents were self-selected, and they provided thoughtful, nuanced and rich ideas on the future of public sector practice and education. Therefore, the article used the survey responses to supplement and extend their synthesis and the analysis of the literature and to draw practical inferences for public sector leaders and educators of such leaders.

A review of public affairs competencies with an eye on future demands

The list of competencies for public affairs professionals has evolved since the planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting and budgeting (POSDCORB) model (Gulick and Urwick, 1937). Today, similar to other interdisciplinary degrees seeking to produce more competent and well-versed practitioners and stay relevant and competitive as a degree option, public affairs degrees expanded their focus to integrate ideas from psychology, sociology, social work and organizational behavior (Holzer and Lin, 2007). At the same time, despite the diverse disciplinary origins, scholars continue to find gaps in the curriculum including absence courses on history (Gibson and Stolcis, 2006; McGrath et al., 2010; and Dilworth, 2014), law (Rubaii et al., 2019; Caiden, 2017), social equity (McCandless and Larson, 2018) and gender competence (Elias and D'Agostino, 2019).

What is common in much of the research studies on this subject is that researchers tend to focus on what public sector leaders need today. For example, according to NASPAA's 2019 accreditation standards, all accredited Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs are required to develop learning outcomes based on NASPAA's five universal competencies:

  1. To lead and manage in the public interest.

  2. To participate in, and contribute to, the policy process.

  3. To analyze, synthesize, think critically, solve problems and make evidence-informed decisions in a complex and dynamic environment.

  4. To articulate, apply and advance a public service perspective.

  5. To communicate and interact productively and in culturally responsive ways with a diverse and changing workforce and society at large (NASPAA, 2019).

The few exceptions include Auluck and Levin (2009) and Mau (2017); Kettl (2015) and the National Academy of Public Administration Grand Challenges report (2018), who foresee the challenges of a narrow focus on local matters at the expense of global influences. Mau (2017) also acknowledges that competency models have gaps, such as focusing too much on the skills needed in the past instead of addressing competencies needed for the future.

In response to this gap, this discussion of global public service competencies is focused on tomorrow. This article is also premised on the idea that addressing current and future global challenges depends on collaboration across nation states and at the local level. Besides the observed gap in competencies required for future challenges focused on global influences in public service, the authors also found that a limited attention is paid to the process and methods of mastering those competencies, which this article attempts to address.

How might the key megatrends influence the public sector?

The literature on external trends reshaping the future of work and the demands on the public sector and its leaders is vast, especially outside academia. The article developed the list of trends for the survey based on a review of the literature (Table 1, column 2). Then, once the answers were collected, they were grouped into broader but closely connected megatrends (Table 1, column 1).

This section reviews these four megatrends providing a brief overview of each, highlighting key practical implications for the public sector and specifying key competencies they may require while keeping in mind that responses will vary depending on the local context. This review is informed by findings from the review of relevant reports that are closely echoed and complemented by the survey responses.

Climate change

Climate change is not just about increasing temperatures. It is also closely associated with heat waves, wildfires, floods and droughts, as well as rising sea levels and melting glaciers. These changes already impose high costs on current governments and generations, in addition to putting future generations' livelihoods on the line. They strain existing infrastructure and job and food security. They also hurt the most vulnerable populations the most, including the elderly, children and the poor who have little opportunities to move elsewhere. And yet the progress in reducing the human-made causes of climate change has been slow, with the largest contributors, like the USA, currently in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The transition to a greener economy is expected to create new jobs, but it will take resources, will, training and time, all of which seem to be in short supply in many countries.

What new practices does this megatrend suggest for public sector leaders? According to the survey participants, governments are expected to make urgent policy changes, including acknowledging and responding to climate change and environmental pollution, making major economic investments and adjustments in industry, energy and the agricultural sectors to ensure greater sustainability, building more resilient infrastructure, rethinking urban and city planning and reskilling.

In terms of competencies needed to respond to these changes, both the survey participants and the literature placed a heavy emphasis on building and strengthening capacity for collaboration, coping with emergencies and building greater social safety nets for those whose livelihoods are affected (World Bank, 2019; Dølvik and Steen, 2018). In addition, Patrick et al.'s (2012) qualitative study of community health workers in Australia found that critical thinking, communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills were most important. Furthermore, ability to work across disciplines, foster partnerships among key stakeholders, employ systems and resilience thinking and foster a paradigm shift in thinking around the connection between human health and the environment were highlighted among essential competencies for future practitioners. Another case study on local responsiveness to sea-level rise in a Canadian municipality identified problem-solving, futures thinking, risk prediction, vulnerability analysis, planning and communication, as well as the ability to manage adaptation, instill hope and hone self-efficacy among essential competencies for public sector workers (Pruneau et al., 2013).

Demographic shifts

According to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2019 Report, the world population is projected to grow to nearly 10 bn by 2050. Most of the developed world's population is aging and the share of working-age adults is falling. In 2018, for the first time in history, persons aged 65 years or above outnumbered children under five years of age globally. By 2050, 25% Europe and Northern America's population could be aged 65 years or over. In contrast, 16% of the world population is projected to be over age 65 years, up from 9% in 2019, because poorer regions have a higher share of younger population (United Nations, 2019).

This megatrend affects government practices across the globe in multiple ways. As mentioned in reports of nearly every major management consulting company (inter alia, Eggers et al., 2019), echoed in the survey responses, direct challenges include the staffing of government agencies in richer countries as more senior personnel are retiring and legitimacy of governments is declining. This demographic change can also create pressure on government budgets as more of the populace is of entitlement age compared to those who are wage-earning younger adults paying into a social safety net system. Many societies with “aging populations” are faced with making difficult financial decisions over covering pensions and entitlement programs as opposed to investing in education, infrastructure and research.

The immediate implications for the public sector in these countries include the increased need for diversified revenue streams and budget modeling/planning, increased need for partnerships to manage and extend limited public funds, while not decreasing services and streamlining and/or retooling of existing programming based on demographic changes.

Long-term implications for the public sectors of richer countries include the need to manage intended and unintended effects of a potential increase in immigration of young unemployed people from the global south in response to demand from richer countries (Dølvik and Steen, 2018). The latter, combined with climate-related and economic disruptions discussed above, may also aggravate developing countries' problems in the form of brain drain and missed economic opportunities. This megatrend also seems to be further fueling nationalistic attitudes and tighter immigration policies in the richer countries with populist leaders, all the while the ratio of minorities continues to rise in the Western nations.

In terms of competencies required to deal with these challenges, the survey respondents noted the need for robust financial planning and forecasting abilities (or know how to seek them out), along with an understanding of generational and cultural differences that are already playing out in the workplace and society. Diversity, equity and inclusion will continue to grow in importance.

Advances in technology

Technological advances and innovations pose a wide range of new opportunities as well as challenges for public sector leaders around the world. The most widely felt effect of this megatrend was experienced in the aftermath of COVID-19, when remote work became mainstream for large numbers of workers across many industries and countries. Some argue that this transition to “work from home” during COVID-19 was relatively painless compared to previous shifts in nature of work due to advances in information technology (The Economist, 2020).

This megatrend has been fueled by the doubling of computing powers and speeds every two years (“Moore's Law”), increasing data access, availability and interconnectedness. This is a cascading megatrend: the next wave includes innovations that promise even more dramatic changes including a more pervasive AI, smart robotics, (more) big data, the IoT, 3D printing of most products, genome editing, widespread use of autonomous vehicles and the use of blockchain technology to manage secure transactions, as well as innovations in energy sources (Dølvik and Steen, 2018).

These innovations have vast potential to improve productivity, safety and convenience of production, incomes and the quality of life globally while decreasing transaction costs (Kelly, 2017; Schwab, 2016). Governments, for example, can make smarter and more informed policies and decisions and even streamline internal operations and services. For example, the US Army's recruitment chatbot, SGT STAR, can answer 94% of questions doing the work of 55 recruiters (TextRecruit, 2018). A Deloitte report (Eggers et al., 2019) predicts that use of AI-fueled automation and enhancements could significantly reduce paperwork-intensive work, saving the federal government about 1.2 bn hours of work annually.

Challenges that come with this trend are equally compelling. The current estimates predict a nearly 50% job reduction (if not fully, then partially) in the next 20 years due to automation (ILO, 2019, p. 19). Others predict that while labor market disruptions are likely to lead to job losses in the short term, mainly affecting lower skilled workers, but in the longer term more new jobs would be created even in areas not directly affected by digital transformation (Bakhshi et al., 2017). This transition, however, will require extensive government planning and costly investments in retraining the labor force.

Technological advances also have been fueling globalization, such that now, in addition to global movement of goods and ideas, movement of labor – breaking down the jobs into chunks and employing freelancers from all over the world – became possible at a large scale. Already, the global gig economy (“human cloud”) is a $82 bn industry (Sample, 2018). But the national labor laws that may have offered some protections have become harder to enforce due to the disruption of the now global labor market (Baldwin, 2019).

Privacy and security of users, in an era where big tech companies make profits by selling user data, is another issue that requires serious regulations and global cooperation (Kerry, 2019). The European Union started taking limited measures to protect user data privacy but most governments have yet to address this problem.

Deepening inequality is probably the biggest challenge of all because increasing income inequality is associated with greater social destabilization (Piketty and Saez, 2013). One form of such inequality is related to skills – those who are already better off in terms of education and skills are going to thrive, while poorer segments of the society will have a harder time adjusting to the demands of the new economy (World Economic Forum, 2018).

An even more serious issue is the fact that this trend, coupled with globalization of the labor market, will increase wealth disparity and can undermine democracy. As global elites shield their wealth in tax shelters (World Economic Forum, 2018; Dølvik and Steen, 2018), this “winner-takes-all” economy offers only limited access to the shrinking middle class and can be a recipe for “democratic malaise and dereliction” (Schwab, 2016). Existing structural inequities are likely to be further deepened by biases embedded in AI, innovations in biotech around deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) alterations, as well as the use of quantum computing technologies. COVID-19 has illustrated that globalization of diseases disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalized people.

In sum, there is no aspect of the public sector that will not be affected by this megatrend. Unfortunately, few governments have taken decisive actions to address, let alone pre-empt, the implications of this trend and ensure that the benefits of technology are materialized for all. Governments are expected to engage in more multilateral cooperation about regulating all the above issues but such cooperation has been lacking. Governments have much to gain from effective and efficient use of these innovations to improve both policymaking and implementation of programs. Legislating and enforcing technology ethics and fighting cyberterrorism and financial crimes are additional areas ripened for government policy and action.

In terms of competencies, the survey respondents noted that the key challenge is using technological advances and data to improve decisions and policies, increase effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery and operations and promote equity. Majority of the survey respondents noted that digital fluency, advanced data analysis and data visualization skills will increase in importance. But this is a double-edged sword and a stronger ethical compass would be required. This is because “public affairs will struggle to retain neutrality and objectivity as political leanings influence the public policy realm, but this challenge could increase as politically influenced administrators use big data to manipulate statistics to support their viewpoints.”

This trend will also require the ability to collaborate with experts across industries, disciplines and sectors. Public sector workers will need to solicit ideas and help from citizens and other groups to design new solutions that capitalize on the potential benefits while also addressing the potential negative effects of this megatrend, including an increase in inequality.

Growing social fragmentation and erosion of democracy

None of the megatrends reviewed above develop in a vacuum. They interact in a myriad of ways and sometimes amplify each other, this megatrend is a case at point.

Since the end of the Cold War democracy seemed to be taking hold around the world but for the last 13 years, the level of government-backed freedom has been declining globally. Although 55% of counties are considered democratic, about one-third of the world's population resides in autocratic regimes or in large countries where democracy has been eroding. This includes Russia, Brazil, India, the USA, as well as some European countries (Freedom House, 2016; Lührmann and Lindberg, 2019).

The public is increasingly divided and fair and democratic representation is becoming harder to accomplish in the 21st century using outdated institutions designed for another era. Why? The following additional factors that mutually reinforce and amplify each other raise a cause for concern:

  1. Inability of existing national institutions and governments to shield their citizens from negative effects of globalization, be it financial crises or pandemics.

  2. The rising anxieties associated with the fast pace of labor market changes due to automation, globalization, demographic changes and immigration.

  3. Voting is no longer representative, even though it has become the primary means of political engagement. People who tend to vote more are older and more well-off, while younger people who tend to vote less, prefer to engage in real time via social media. Similarly, marginalized populations vote the least.

  4. Social media platforms also tend to steer people who think alike. They favor and profit from polarizing content. This creates echo chambers of imagined realities that further reinforce polarization.

  5. Internet and social media platforms, unlike traditional media, are not required to check validity or truthfulness of information and are becoming a goldmine for misinformation. One consequence is that many citizens are confused and suspicious of democratic processes. As a result, people may tune out of democratic processes or become targets for extreme groups.

  6. The rising dissatisfaction from these changes and flaws of social media are readily exploited by extreme and/or populist parties. Once in power, they can further undermine democratic mechanisms, legitimacy and the effectiveness of governments (European Political Strategy Centre, 2019).

As a result, “this growing fragmentation of the electorate and the political system makes it harder for political parties to aggregate citizens' demands and interests and translate them in political debates and policy decisions” (ibid, p. 5). They also bring forth political representatives that the majority do not relate to, who further deepen disengagement and alienation. For example, trust in the US Government in Washington declined from about 80% in the 1960s to about 20% in 2019 (Pew Research Center, 2019). Even in the Nordic states, which are lauded for their effective democratic governance, a similar tendency is observed as people report that they do not feel heard (Vesnic-Alujevic et al., 2019).

It appears as if the public sectors in many countries are caught in a negative reinforcing loop: technological advances, combined with inequality in income and limited educational opportunities, are contributing to more anxiety, especially among the poorest and to the rise of populist political representatives who play on those sentiments to gain power. The latter seem to be eroding government legitimacy and the ability to respond to those trends. Implications of this trend for governments are vast.

The survey respondents strongly echoed the findings from the literature summarized above. The following themes emerged from the thematic analysis of the responses. First, the current governance institutions are increasingly unfit for dealing with the complexities of the contemporary interdependent world. This is especially true for authoritarian and semiauthoritarian countries, although even democracies are increasingly unable to cope with the pace of changes and retain their legitimacy, as expressed in the following quote: “the gap in the public consensus about the purpose and goals of governance is growing.”

Related, the public sector leaders are increasingly finding it hard to get their jobs done to address the challenges when “political trust [is] low and fragmentation [is] high” that will also lead to “greater conflict over the resources that do exist.” As a result, “those left to do the work will need to do far more work than their predecessors did with little resources, broken infrastructure, and in the midst of global environmental collapse.”

What competencies and solutions are required of public sector leaders in this challenging situation to get their job done in this daunting context? Some respondents suggested rebuilding what works, including by “bringing back ethics in political leadership and administrative governance,” finding “effective ways to cut through the divisiveness” including via conflict resolution skills and “rebuilding international relationships.”

Others suggested innovating by introducing new practices and policies using greater collaboration, transparency, accountability and public participation.

Some see more promises in local governments: “public affairs is going to have to do more at sub-national levels (states, provinces, counties and cities) when national governments will not” but many issues will be pushed down to the state and local levels because of inaction at the federal level but “local governments… lack the authority to deal with many social issues.”

Commitment “to issues of equity and social justice in public institutions” and making sure “good people going into public education at all levels (teachers, administrators, community schools partners)” will be needed. “Public affairs practice and education needs to be more diverse in terms of the methodologies it uses and the types of people it attracts.”

Lastly, and most importantly, “there needs to be a collective and coordinated effort on the above” requiring strong communication, coordination and collaboration skills (see Table 2).

Ultimately, many survey participants strongly emphasized trust that is often undervalued or overlooked in government reform (Newell et al., 2011). To build trust, civil servant leaders should consider values-based leadership models focused on public public service. Rebuilding trust would have to start with education and “more awareness towards citizens' needs, not only for services but for information, will be much needed. We will experience an increasing need for civic and public education and engagement, in a contest of contested facts.”

Here is a summary of the key megatrends and their practical implications coupled with the corresponding competencies:

Implications for educators

It is not easy to draw inferences about an uncertain future. The time gap between educational investment today and actual demand for competencies in the workplace of tomorrow is real. While educators are facing their own sets of daunting survival challenges in the post-pandemic world, such investment may seem frivolous. In addition, competencies are not the same for different levels of leadership and across agencies and countries, further complicating attempts to draw inferences for educators. Yet, it is essential to look ahead to stay relevant. This section summarizes the authors' observations about key competencies for the future and how to teach them using broad brushstrokes drawing from the review and discussion above.

What to teach? The most notable competencies for preparing future public sector leaders capable of taking on the megatrends can be grouped into the following categories that complement and extend the NASPAA standards even further.

Big picture and systems thinking: public sector leaders need to clearly understand influences, implications and consequences of key megatrends on society and government. In the words of one respondent, teaching “big real complex problems” should be an important part of the curriculum. Adding a focus on megatrends and how they are likely to shape the future would complement the current history-oriented curriculum. The lessons from history will be important but not sufficient to forge a path forward, given the increasing complexity that has never before existed. Teaching systems thinking in public administration is becoming more important than even before (Straussman, 2018; Raisio et al., 2018; Haigh, 2020; and Ivanovic and Gerrits, 2018).

Futures thinking, forecasting and planning that ideally also leverages digital and data fluency is also becoming essential. The scale of the disruptions and livelihoods effects will require the best data to understand and weigh risks and analyze vulnerabilities and compare potential scenarios.

Problem solving in a complex environment entails a different approach unlike simple problems-solving using best practices or complicated problem-solving by relying on an alternate-criterion matrix or on experts. Complex environments usually have many causes and consequences that mutually constrain each other, which makes prediction almost impossible and past methods do not always work given that the situation is dynamic and continually evolves. Examples of complex problems the public sector leaders include racial injustices, gun violence, unaccessible health care and many more. Complex problem solving, that uses an emergent approach and reliance of diverse perspectives to develop and test novel solutions, will become invaluable for public sector leaders in the future as well (Snowden and Boone, 2007).

Collaboration across boundaries: Related to the above, an ability to cross boundaries, to build and maintain new networks of people and organizations, constructively resolve conflicts and to facilitate emergent action and conversations within those diverse networks will also be a key for successful public sector leaders (Ansell and Gash, 2012; O'Leary, 2015; Ospina and Foldy, 2015).

Innovation skills will be essential to forge the path forward. They are handy for complex problems as well – especially when past solutions are not likely to be sufficient for an increasingly challenging environment. Many governance institutions, policies, processes and services are ripe for rethinking to ensure they best fit the problems they were meant to address. Research on social transformation (Mirabella and Nguyen, 2019; Hernandez and Marshall, 2017) and innovations (Collins, 2020; Bason, 2018; Gasco, 2017 and Van de Meer and Marks, 2016) are therefore becoming increasingly relevant and important for public sector leaders and educators (World Economic Forum, 2018).

Values-based public leadership that fosters accountability, transparency, diversity, inclusion and equity is no longer just a right thing to do but also is essential for building trust (Newell et al., 2011). Tomorrow's public service workers can benefit from an ability to both ethically and pragmatically approach public service, address politics directly. Being intentional about impacts of policies on different publics, including understanding the effect of policies and programs on inequality as well as marginalized groups will be important. Continual neglect of this problem may lead to more social unrest and instability (Piketty and Saez, 2013).

How to design and deliver such competencies

Besides the trends mentioned above, the nature of work and what it means to have a career is also changing. As imagined by Deloitte,

Instead of looking forward to a 30-year career in the same job, a public servant entering the workforce today might view a career as a series of waves, each surfed until it crests and it's time to paddle out to catch the next one. With each ride, the employee obtains new training, perfects new skills, builds their network, and accumulates new experiences (Eggers et al., 2019, p. 13).

In this context, how the competencies discussed earlier are taught and learned becomes as important as what is being taught. The survey participants emphasized several points in this regard.

First, they are embracing a more experiential approach to educate future practitioners by using more active, team-based and problem/ project-based learning grounded on real-life challenges. In some cases, a flipped classroom approach is being used, whereby the classroom is reserved for active learning, while pre-homework is used by students to acquire theory and background knowledge. Some of the survey respondents involve practitioners by integrating client projects into their courses. Other survey respondents used a participatory approach by bringing perspectives of community-owned research and civically engaged learning to the forefront. Similarly, in a survey of today's rising public leaders in the US Government, respondents would have preferred to have had more mock negotiations, team-based assignments, analytics and data modeling and real-world public service problem analysis. They also recommended more interaction with instructors with practical experience in the public sector (Volker Alliance, 2018).

For tomorrow's public servants, the reliance on historical scenarios and lecture-based learning may no longer be sufficient. Educators might be compelled to continue integrating topical content to help students understand the extent of the impact of megatrends and experiential activities such as simulations and client projects that assist with competency development in soft skills, change management and systems thinking.

Second, learning to adapt and learning how to learn will become a key for effective public sector leaders working in the context of continually evolving and dynamic situations with multiple dimensions. To respond to this need, some schools are already exploring subscription models and lifelong learning practices based on demand and situation. An investment in one degree with the idea that it can be capitalized on for a lifetime career in government no longer seems as certain. Universities are also considering shortening the initial training period, while also allowing students to come back to regularly complete and update their skills. They may partner with other higher education institutions to offer credit with the goal of better serving students and alumni. This may be more critical for small schools with less diverse offerings. This “post-sale” service can be adapted to the constraints of adults in the form of reskilling services, coaching or online classes.

Lastly, the process of formal learning itself will likely transform. Instructor-led and supplied curriculum and content may co-exist with a networked mode of learning when it comes to complex problems. Such learning may rely on input from multiple sources and builds on the best of what everyone has to offer – involving learners, their employers, educators, new entrants and professionals from adjacent fields.

In sum, both the content and process of learning may be reimagined to adapt to working with and within complex situations.

Discussion and conclusions

Trends in public affairs education mirror developments across higher education including a renewed emphasis on competency-based curriculum design (Kapucu and Koliba, 2017), global and intercultural competency development in students (Capobianco et al., 2018) and increased use of experiential learning approaches (Gerlach and Reinagel, 2016). However, much of the existing research on public sector practitioners and leaders has tended to focus more on competencies needed today and less on competencies needed for tomorrow and even less about how they might be best learned and taught.

To address this gap, the article started by reviewing key trends that are likely to reshape the future of societies and the roles and responsibilities of governments and teased out insights on the types of competencies that may be essential for public sector leaders of tomorrow. It also identified methods of learning and teaching those competencies.

This article used broad brushstrokes to open and orient the conversation toward understanding implications of these global megatrends on public sector leaders and educators. In no way is this discussion meant to be prescriptive, especially given the vast variety of local contexts.

Ideally this conversation, as a complex problem itself, could take place simultaneously in different localities and involve educators, practitioners, futurists, researchers and younger generations who wish to work for the public sector tomorrow. Several governments, such as Canada, Denmark and Singapore, as well as entire regions are already convening diverse stakeholders for dialogues to comprehend the evolving trends and identify path forward (Dondi et al., 2020; Vesnic-Alujevic et al., 2019). Understanding the future of work in the public sector and future of higher education in public affairs requires insights from multiple perspectives as well as an emergent approach, and it is hoped that this article will succeed in launching this such conversations.

“What do you consider to be the most important drivers of changes in public affairs practice over the next 10–20 years in the country where you are currently working? (check all that apply)” (survey question asking participants to select from bolded themes in “Column 1”)

MegatrendsTrendsTotal out of 64% of all respondents
Growing social fragmentation and democratic erosion
Decreasing effectiveness and legitimacy of governance institutions and increasingly fragmented societies
Political/governance crises (Schwab, 2016; Lührmann and Lindberg, 2019; Freedom House, 2016; Pew Research Center, 2019)4164.1
Societal fragmentation (Lührmann and Lindberg, 2019; Pew Research Center, 2019; Vesnic-Alujevic et al., 2019)3046.9
Technological advances
AI, smart robotics, big data, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, genome editing, autonomous vehicles, blockchain and advances in new energy supplies (Dølvik and Steen, 2018; World Economic Forum, 2018; Dondi et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2019)
Increasing availability of big data (Schwab, 2016; Schatsky et al., 2014; and Parman, 2017)2843.8
Advances in artificial intelligence (Kelly, 2017; Sample, 2018; Schatsky et al., 2014)1320.3
Advances in new energy supplies and technologies (World Economic Forum, 2018; Parman, 2017)710.9
Climate change
Increasing wildfires, droughts and floods; rising sea levels
Climate change (World Bank, 2019; Pagaza and Argyriados, 2009; Patrick et al., 2012; Pruneau et al., 2013)2640.6
Demographic shifts
Population of richer countries increasingly older; poorer countries with younger populations; changing demographic makeup of countries
Increasingly aging societies (Dølvik and Steen, 2018; UN, 2019; ILO, 2019)2031.3

Megatrends and their practical implications for educators

MegatrendsKey practical implications for the public sectorCompetencies essential for addressing those implications
Climate change:
Increasing temperatures, heat waves, wildfires, floods and droughts, rising sea levels and melting glaciers
  1. Transition to a greener economy

  2. Make major economic investments and adjustments in industry, energy and the agricultural sectors to ensure greater sustainability

  3. Build more resilient infrastructure

  4. Rethink urban and city planning

  5. Build more effective and inclusive social safety nets

  1. Collaboration, communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills

  2. Partnerships among key stakeholders and working across disciplines

  3. Systems and resilience thinking

  4. Emergency management

  5. Fostering paradigm shift around the connection between human health and the environment

  6. Critical thinking and problem-solving

  7. Futures thinking, risk prediction, vulnerability analysis and planning

  8. Ability to manage adaptation, instill hope and hone self-efficacy

Demographic changes:
Population of richer countries are getting older
Poorer countries have younger populations
Changing demographic makeup of countries
In richer countries
  1. Aging population

  2. Smaller share of working population

  3. Staffing shortages among senior public sector staff

  4. Budget shortages and trade-offs between welfare of the older people vs the rest

  5. Greater inflow of minorities

  6. Rising nationalistic attitudes

In poorer countries
  1. Brain drain of younger people

  2. Loss of economic potential

  1. Financial planning

  2. Forecasting

  3. Fluency in dealing with generational and cultural differences

  4. Diversity, equity and inclusion

Technological advances including AI, smart robotics, big data, the IOT, 3D printing, genome editing, autonomous vehicles, blockchain and new energy sourcesPositive potential includes
  1. Improved productivity, safety and convenience of production

  2. Raising incomes and the quality of life

  3. Decreased transaction cost

  4. More informed, effective and efficient policy, implementation and services

Negative implications include
  1. Impending job losses among lower skilled who need reskilling

  2. Worker rights, privacy and security needs to be addressed

  3. May deepen inequality and undermine democracy

  1. Digital fluency

  2. Advanced data analysis

  3. Data visualization

  4. Stronger ethical compass

  5. Collaboration with experts across industries, disciplines and sectors

  6. Innovation and design of new solutions

Growing social fragmentation and democratic erosion including governance institutions are decreasing in effectiveness and legitimacy; society is increasingly fragmented
  1. Governance institutions need to be redesigned to better address current challenges, increasing complexity and the level of conflict

  2. Level of conflict on polarization is growing

  3. Nationalist and extreme groups are gaining greater traction via unchecked social media

  4. Trust needs to be restored via public participation, accountability and values-based leadership and public education

  1. Ethics and values-based leadership

  2. Conflict resolution

  3. Collaboration and coordination

  4. Ability to create and maintain accountability and transparency

  5. Designing innovative approaches for participation and decision-making

  6. New ways of thinking and interacting

  7. Commitment to equity and social justice in public institutions

  8. Ability to foster diversity of methods and people

  9. Educating public

  10. Information literacy


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We would like to express our deep gratitude to Dr. Cristián Pliscoff Varas from the Universidad de Chile and Dr. Erlyana Erlyana at California State University Long Beach for participating in a 2019 NASPAA conference panel with us in that led to further development of this research.

Corresponding author

Carolyn Taylor Meyer is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

About the authors

Dr. Mahabat Baimyrzaeva is associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Dr. Mahabat Baimyrzaeva's focus areas include organizational learning, capacity building, change and strategic planning using socially innovative and design thinking approaches. In her work, Dr. Baimyrzaeva aims to integrate insights from multiple disciplines, including organizational management, cognitive/behavioral sciences, public policy and administration, international law and development. She has designed and taught more than 40 courses on diverse subjects, including organizational leadership/management, social innovations, nation building, policy analysis and applied research methods and design. In addition to teaching, she regularly mentors students during their consultancies with influential local, national and international organizations. She also authored many peer-reviewed publications about public management reforms. She also regularly delivers presentations, workshops and trainings in policy analysis, applied research methods, strategic leadership, governance reforms and culture change to government and nonprofit professionals in Central Asia and in the USA. Prior to coming to the Institute, Dr. Baimyrzaeva worked at various government, nonprofit, academic and international organizations, including in the capacity of a civil society expert at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and director of the Bureau of Legal and Social Assistance for Refugees in Kyrgyzstan.

Carolyn Taylor Meyer is Director of Professional Immersive Learning at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She works with faculty, students, and partners on experiential learning programs including semester-long practice, international onsite courses and community-engaged research projects. She advises graduate students interested in participating in a semester-long immersive learning program/fellowship/co-op while also building a network of international and domestic internship opportunities at field and headquarter locations within the security, environmental policy, conflict resolution, social enterprise and development sectors. She has co-designed experiential learning programs in 15 countries. She has taught Politics of Developing Countries, American Government and International Relations at Monterey Peninsula College and US Foreign Policy at California State Monterey Bay. She earned an MA in International Policy Studies from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and is a doctoral candidate in the Human and Organizational Development program at Fielding Graduate University.

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