Critical Thinking competency for an Open Government

Critical Thinking competency for an Open Government published on EPSI in November 2014

Full paper can be accessed here

Executive Summary

Critical thinking is one of the key competences of the today’s leaders, managers, public servants, policy makers, others.

During the past 20-30 years, hundreds of studies and projects have been conducted in order to reform the educational processes and to integrate the development of critical thinking in the educational system. The reason it is so important is because critical thinking competency is directly connected with independent decision making process, which allows for evidence based, out-of-box solutions and approaches. People who are able to think critically, are able to generate un-standard solutions, be free of stereotypes, embed innovation as part of the work they do. The complex world we are living in, the rapidly changing environment, the unprecedented flow of information and data – all require new sets of competencies in the government, and critical thinking is on the top of the list.  Today, public servants have to be more thorough, more adaptive, more flexible, be able to assess multiple scenarios for the same problems/issues and be able to generate solutions which might have not been implemented before. Thus, critical thinking is essential given that it helps “overcome and become aware of biases, false assumptions, myths, and faulty paradigms that can hamper effective decision making” (Bazerman 2005).

This paper looks into six specific cognitive processes (departing from Bloom’s Taxonomy) that altogether form the critical thinking competency, and provide clear descriptions of the type of attitude, skills and knowledge needed in order to develop each one of them. The paper addresses public servants as “learners” of critical thinking and provides practical guidance accordingly.

The need for critical thinking competency in the public sector

Historically, public administration has been primarily concerned with issues and challenges related to faithful application of the law, along with integrity, honesty and efficiency being at the foundation of this process. Throughout the past years, however, the roles of the public administration have started to suffer slight changes, due to the fact that public administration has become one which should engage actively not only in applying the rule of law, but also in creating and interpreting it. How can such creation and interpretation process be done ‘correctly’, ‘wisely’ and in the ‘public interest’ remains a huge question for many public administrations from around the world.

As societies increase in size and complexity, and citizens have more and more access to information including via online medium, governments increase too, and take on more functions, more responsibilities. Public institutions tend to become more specialized around specific issues.  With public administration becoming more specialized and more complex, people who are to perform administrative tasks will have more attention on them, particularly on their level of competency and the degree to which they are ready to cope with increasingly challenging and sophisticated tasks, especially for those which they might not have received training for. Thus, the quality of the in-service or pre-service training is critical for the overall success of the public administration.  Systematic and continuous efforts to study ways to improve public administration and make it more efficient is even more relevant today, when several Governments are endorsing ambitious, open government, open data, open education, open health, or other related agendas. These modern developments are requesting new types of competences from public servants, particularly given that the public policies processes change significantly as well.  This is extremely important given that policy-making is the process by which governments translate their political vision into programs and actions to deliver ‘outcomes’ – or the so-called desired change to be produced in the real world. Policy-making is a fundamental function of any government (be it democratic, in transition, other). Its’ quality depends directly on the quality and competency level of the human resources involved.

Why is that so? The world for which these public policies are being developed is becoming increasingly complex too, challenging, uncertain and hard to predict. Citizens are better informed, have rising expectations and are making growing demands for the better quality of the public services as well as for services tailored to their individual needs.

How then public servants have to deal with these complex changes and challenges? What are the best ways to address them? What are the guiding principles they should follow?

If we look for example, at the “Public service principles that should guide EU civil servants” [1]it can be seen how complex and demanding those principles are:

  • Commitment to the European Union and its citizens – Civil servants should be conscious that the Union’s institutions exist in order to serve the interests of the Union and of its citizens in fulfilling the objectives of the Treaties. They should make recommendations and decisions only to serve these interests.
  • Integrity – Civil servants should be guided by a sense of propriety and conduct themselves at all times in a manner that would bear the closest public scrutiny. This obligation is not fully discharged merely by acting within the law.
  • Objectivity – Civil servants should be impartial, openminded, guided by evidence, and willing to hear different viewpoints. They should be ready to acknowledge and correct mistakes.
  • Respect for others – Civil servants should act respectfully to each other and to citizens. They should be polite, helpful, timely, and co‐operative. They should make genuine efforts to understand what others are saying and express themselves clearly, using plain language.
  • Transparency – Civil servants should be willing to explain their activities and to give reasons for their actions.  They should keep proper records and welcome public scrutiny of their conduct, including their compliance with these public service principles.

As it can be seen from just this example above, public servants are regularly faced with the demand to justify actions, provide arguments, formulate questions, make informed and evidenced based decisions and so many more. To be able to successfully fulfill these tasks, public servants need to be able to think critically, need to master the critical thinking competency!

What is a competency in the first place: A competency is the capability of an individual to apply a set of related knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to successfully perform certain tasks in a defined work setting.

What is critical thinking competency and why is it so important? Critical thinking competency is directly connected with independent decision making process. Thus, the complexity (profoundness) of the applied critical thinking depends on the complexity of the situation in which decisions need to be made.

Motivation to apply the critical thinking competency is determined by the dominant value behind this type of thinking – and more specifically, the value behind it is freedom (desire to be independent in thinking). Activating the cognitive processes which are specific for this type of thinking is determined by a problematic situation which requires solutions and decision making. Generally, the capacity to formulate questions is a key to any critical thinker. The main reason for that being that asking questions is the main instrument for problematizing or challenging the situation, and to maintaining a high level of thinking at each of the thinking levels. Thus, one of the main objectives for critical thinking learning is developing the competency of “asking different types of questions for any situation or object of study”.

Critical thinking competency is key for good citizenship and it is the public sector that can encourage good thinking among citizens by embedding it in their educational institutions, from primary to higher education and life-long learning programs.

Why developing critically-thinking citizenry is important?

  • Critical thinking is particularly important for ensuring that voters make well-thought/considered decisions and are able to assess the wide spectrum of alternative policies proposed by the government.
  • Critical thinking is important for ensuring that citizens demand more information, more data and are able to work with the data, thus contributing to shaping and co-creating the public policies at all levels: local, national, regional.
  • Critical thinking helps citizens become more aware of the emerging issues, of the community problems, and be able to propose solutions and recommendations.
  • Critical thinking is essential in countries which have adopted open government agendas – because in an open government agenda one needs both sides actively involved in policy dialogue: governments and the citizenry.
  • When democracy is at stake, governments should have even a stronger interest in the promotion of critical thinking, and aspire to be more democratic than they are. Educating citizens to uphold to the principles of participatory and deliberative democracy is essential for an open government.


Attitudes, skills and knowledge necessary to develop the critical thinking competency – key six learning situations

Critical thinking competency departs from the higher order cognitive processes as per Bloom’s Taxonomy[2] , and each of these processes constitute a core part of the critical thinking competency. Each of the following cognitive processes requires specific attitudes, skills and knowledge:

  • information/knowledge,
  • understanding and interpretation,
  • application,
  • analyses,
  • synthesis and
  • evaluation


[2] Blooms Taxonomy –

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