When Henley Management College was redesigning its MBA programme, the school decided against stand­alone classes or electives for public sector students, who comprise about 20 per cent of the class.

“When you do that, you ghettoise the people in the public sector,” says Stephen Lee, director of the Centre for Voluntary Sector Management at Henley. “And what they get most benefit from is sharing their frustrations, their concerns and interests with people from other sectors.”

As government agencies outsource more of their services to external contractors, civil servants and politicians are spending more time in the company of business people and non-profit professionals.

“And similarly within government, the problems that need to be addressed require cross-governmental action, which means collaboration among a number of agencies,” says Max Stier, head of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit organisation focused on revitalising US federal government. “Understanding how to effectively unify and use these resources calls for serious management skills.”

These skills are arguably even more crucial for the public sector than for companies, where the main goal is profitability. By contrast, local and national governments are trying to fulfil a wide range of goals, and satisfy customers who often have conflicting demands.

“I see a lot of demand in the public sector for MBA skills,” says Niko Canner, co-founder of Katzenbach Partners, a New York-based consultancy whose clients include public sector organisations. “The rigorous approach to thinking about strategy is even more important in the public sector than in the private sector …Finance and accounting are taking on greater relevance for civil servants and others. “We’re in a budgetary climate where there are going to be fewer resources,” says Mr Stier. “You’re seeing a double pressure of diminishing resources and increasing demand – and that will require a greater efficiency and effectiveness.”

At the same time, the profile of employees in the public sector is changing. In the US these days, 70 per cent of all white-collar workers are professional and 30 per cent clerical, says Mr Stier. “The government is now a knowledge organisation.”

This means that, when embarking on initiatives or tackling long-standing problems, public sector employees now require greater powers of analysis and an ability to be more strategic in their thinking – skills that lie at the heart of the traditional MBA programme.

For Catherine Kang, who was sponsored by her employer, the US Coast Guard, to take the Fellows Programme in Innovation and Global Leadership at MIT Sloan School of Management, it was this ability to think more strategically that she found most helpful in the MBA programme.

“To be able to take a big-picture view of your organisation, the direction you want to go and how you want to get there is very relevant,” says Ms Kang, who is currently taking time off from the Coast Guard to work at a national security think-tank.

Other public sector employees are turning to joint degrees, electives and courses with a focus on the public sector or specialised courses run by business schools.

Warwick Business School in the UK has run a postgraduate diploma in Public Finance and Leadership since 2004. At the Haas school at Berkeley, MBA students can take one or two electives at the School of Public Policy. Also in the US, the Smith school at the University of Maryland offers a joint MBA/MPP (master in public policy), with concentrations in areas such as national security policy

Dawn Morrow recently graduated with an MBA/MHA (master of healthcare administration) jointly run by University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and the School of Public Health. Ms Morrow, who is now an internal consultant for a US federal agency, believes what she learnt on the MBA programme will be highly relevant to her public sector job.

“A lot of times, we define business really narrowly,” she says. “But the reality is that the skills of business are everywhere, from non-profits to the public sector – you still need management skills and to design a process effectively, manage a budget and make your work ­efficient.”

Many schools are tailoring programmes to military professionals. The Smith School has a partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, that since 2002 has enabled military personnel in the Washington area to take a combined MBA degree.

Senior military leaders are among the participants on MIT’s Sloan Fellows Programme. “Many of the military candidates on the programme say this helps them understand how the private sector works,” says the director, Stephen Sacca.

Even so, the learning is not all one-way. When it comes to leadership, military professionals have much to teach business. So when, during a hostage crisis re-enactment drill, her class turned to Ms Kang and a fellow student from the Singaporean military to lead the exercise, the couple turned the tables. “We purposely said we would not,” she says. “We both played hostages.”

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