A large reset button has been pressed on the world’s economy and society.  Citizens and businesses have all been operating in restricted mode.  But when the reboot is completed, there will be a different economic and societal ‘operating system’ and ‘user interface’ that we will all have to learn and adjust to.

So what are the key considerations and challenges in designing this ‘new normal’ for Europe’s public servants: their ways of working, work environments, the employee experience and the skills and technologies they need to be effective in their roles?

 

The current Covid-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact on the supply and demand for goods and services across all sectors of the economy.  Social and mobility restrictions shut down the tourism, leisure and entertainment industry virtually overnight.  Food retailers have faced increased demand but had to quickly overcome the challenges of greater volumes through their online channels, in parallel with rebalancing supply chains to local suppliers and reconfiguring physical stores.  The life sciences, technology and communications sectors have all seen increased demand for their products and services. 

All industries have had to manage and operate through a rapidly changing economic environment that evolved over days and weeks: first from ‘business as usual’ to ‘business as not usual’ as social and mobility restrictions had an immediate impact on revenues and service delivery.  As the new levels of supply and demand for services have become clearer, organisations are operating in a new manner: ‘business as unusual’.  Through the period following the relaxation of restrictions, organisations will need to implement the permanent changes to their business and operating models to be successful and effective in whatever ‘new normal’ economic and social environment materialises.

The public service has had to respond incredibly quickly and innovatively to the increased demand from citizens for its services:

  • On the frontline in hospitals and nursing homes, and through contact tracing and testing of citizens, the sourcing and supply of personal protective equipment and the implementation of population health management and communications plans. 
  • In other frontline areas like social care, policing, emergency responders, local government and education where public servants are dealing with extra demands placed on them, and working in an environment of uncertainly and, in some areas, higher risk. 
  • Also, the redeployment of public servants from non-frontline roles to support the areas of the public service experiencing increased demand has resulted in a high proportion of people working in areas outside of their core domain and competencies and using unfamiliar work and management practices.

For public service organisations, and specifically public servants themselves, there are several areas for consideration that are clearly emerging:

1. The future of work is today

Many organisations have made the transition from office-based to 100% remote working relatively smoothly and quickly.  What was previously considered a major ‘workforce transformation’ project that was being trialled or considered has actually been delivered quickly and with minimal disruption.  This has been the experience of a large proportion of our clients, as well as for BearingPoint across our global network of offices.

In Ireland for example the draft programme for Government presented by the two major political parties mandates that 20% of public servants should be working remotely by 2021 (and that private-sector employers will be incentivised to do likewise).  Whatever the actual figure is, and it could arguably be higher, the potential positive outcomes for society, the economy and the environment are clear – reduced congestion on roads and public transportation, reduced emissions, increased daily productivity time, and improved citizen wellbeing. The ‘new normal’ will not see a return to the same levels of office-based work, and the balance will vary across different sectors.  To prepare for this, public service managers need to design and implement permanent changes in areas including:

  • Full implementation of robust, scalable and secure communications infrastructure to support remote working and collaboration, both internally and externally
  • The rationalisation of its real estate portfolio and reconfiguration of workspaces to facilitate social distancing at work
  • Redesigning HR and workforce management processes to support new work patterns, work sharing models and ways of working, supported by the appropriate training

2. It is a people business and always will be

Compared to other industry sectors, the public service has a high proportion of its workforce who deliver services face-to-face on the front-line to its customers - be they citizens or businesses - or in the middle or back-office in terms of second-level supporting services, i.e. case management, customer care.  Other industry sectors have seen a significant reduction in the human element of either the manufacturing of products, through roboticization, or the delivery of services via digitalisation of customer channels. And a recent study in France found that across 16 different professions, 70% of public servants were likely to see their roles transformed by digitalisation in the next decade[1].

However, there is a distinction to be made between deploying technology to automate processes and using it to empower the people who deliver them.  It is the latter scenario that is more relevant for public services.  Citizens expect the same options in terms of digital and physical channels from the public service as they get as consumers.  But they also expect front-line public servants – be they nurses, teachers or police officers – to be equipped with and have access to appropriate technology and data to enable them to respond quickly and deliver their service needs. 

The current crisis has only reinforced the key role of front-line public servants in times of both increased and normal demand in serving citizens directly.  As taxpayers we expect children’s education to include communal, face-to-face learning; family members to have access to personal care from social and health workers, and police officers to possess advanced levels of conflict resolution skills to resolve conflicts in the community for example.

Supporting front-line public servants to deliver services more effectively requires:

  • Equipping them with the appropriate mobile technology and access to systems and data to triage, resolve, refer or escalate situations in as close to real-time as possible
  • Redesigning existing processes to balance remote monitoring, video or in-person interactions (i.e. medical assessments, adjudications) and determine when each is appropriate and effective
  • Making multi-agency approaches the norm, and designing integrated services around the specific needs of citizen groups (i.e. elderly, those living in remote areas) to provide an improved experience and outcome

[1] Transformation numérique : dessinons les métiers de demain, DITP (2018)

3. Its services are more complex and multi-faceted than other sectors

The discussion in relation to the demands of various public service roles in comparison to ones at equivalent levels of seniority and experience in the private sector will be an important agenda item.  The roles of nurses, social care professionals, police officers, local government workers and teachers, for example, have had a much greater profile and focus during the current crisis. Norway and Sweden have both seen big increases in applications for nursing higher education in 2020, with an increase of almost a third in Sweden compared to the same time last year[2]. There are a number of areas for consideration – the physical working environment they are in day-to-day, the non-discretionary aspect of the customers they serve, the situational factors they need to consider in providing the appropriate level of service, the implications on people’s lives of making an incorrect decision and the levels of personal risk.

It is an interesting debate as to whether people in equivalent roles and stages of their career in sectors like retail, banking, insurance, telecommunications, manufacturing or tourism/leisure arguably ever face this level of complexity or variety in their day-to-day jobs.  But ultimately the multi-faceted and diverse nature of many public service careers is a fundamental element of the overall employee value proposition.

Attracting and retaining public servants to manage and deliver the level of services we expect will require a reassessment of elements of this employee value proposition, including:

  • The career and progression paths that it can provide and balance between providing both generalist and specialist roles at different levels and grades
  • The levers that are available to public service managers to support reward and performance management
  • A best-in-class wellbeing programme that supports public servants who work in demanding front-line environments

[2] Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR), Press release 23 April 2020 and Science Norway article

4. It needs ‘problem solvers’ over ‘process followers’

Regardless of the current situation, rapidly changing working conditions and circumstances are nowadays part of employees’ and managers’ everyday lives in both the public and private sector.  Essentially, the culture and mindset of organisations has to change when faced with a world of increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and a new set and base-level of competencies needed for employees to be effective in their roles.  These include aspects such as flexibility, agility, resilience, readiness to assume risk, problem solving, dynamic communication and decision making and a higher tolerance for failure.

It is interesting to consider public service roles with their private sector equivalents in this regard.  Consistent, repeatable and efficient processes are of course key for any high-performing organisation.  But do the demands of many public service roles require a greater weighting on skills and competencies associated with being a ‘problem solver’ over a ‘process follower’ ?  For example: case-based work, working in real-world, front-line situations where time is a critical factor in decision making and having to select the right mechanism for actually making the decision, i.e. autocratic vs delegated? As experts at the OECD have recognized essential public services are difficult to transform because they can not necessarily be turned off, redesigned and restarted.  This requires systems thinking where new approaches can be rolled out whilst core are still running[3].

Many public servants have demonstrated their aptitude in problem-solving during the current crisis and it is a fundamental aspect of the overall matrix of skills they require.  From an overall workforce development perspective, the key activities should include:

  • Implementation of a revised competency and self-assessment framework to reflect the core capabilities that public servants require in their ‘new normal’ roles in today’s society and economy
  • Providing access to appropriate learning and development programmes and delivery mechanisms aligned with the level and specialisms of public servants’ roles
  • An increased focus on the organisation and presentation of information from multiple sources to support public servants in real-time, data-driven decision making

[3] OECD (2017), Systems Approaches to Public Sector Challenges

5. Investment needs to be rebalanced towards its people

People, capability and leadership are generally cited as top success factors for public sector transformation, but there is evidence which suggests that the vast majority of public sector spend is on digital solutions and technology.  A report by the Management Consultancies Association in the UK in 2019 estimates that the UK public sector spends over twice the amount in developing its digital and technology capabilities than it does on its people in terms of training, change management, user adoption and improvements in ways of working.

Organisations with highly motivated and appropriately skilled workforces, but sub-standard processes and systems, will typically perform better than those with the wrong organisation culture and level of skills and competencies in its workforce even if they have the latest technologies and optimised processes.  When change is required, the usual approach is to start with the process and technology aspects, for the simple reason that it is easier: technology or processes are easily understood while introducing people-related change is a more complex matter.

There is, of course, a balance to be struck between investing in transforming technology, processes, organisational structures and people development.  But organisations need to consider the following in their decisions:

  • Revising existing business case models for investments in terms of where the money will be spent, what outcomes it is intended to achieve and where the quantitative and qualitative value will be delivered
  • Developing the new skills that public servant managers require as they advance within their organisations so they can allocate their time accordingly in terms of directing, motivating and supporting their teams
  • Implementing a consistent organisational change approach that is understood by the whole organisation and becomes business as usual for  both continuous improvement or more transformative initiatives

6. It is about reskilling and redeployment of roles as opposed to them becoming redundant

In many sectors of the public service, as well as in regional areas away from population centres, there are not enough front-line public servants – this may include for example community health and social care workers, mental health professionals, police officers, teachers or local government employees.  Providing the appropriate technology infrastructure to support reliable access to digital and online services is obviously a key element of national strategies to ensure that all citizens receive a consistent and minimum level of service to meet their diverse needs. Technology has an important role to play in relation to increasing the effectiveness of back-office and supporting processes, and freeing up human and financial resources that can be dedicated to improving the speed of decision making and higher-value activities, or reassigned to areas of increased demand. 

These new considerations and parameters will need to be built into the strategic workforce plan to resource and deliver services in the ‘new normal’ organisation. Overall, it is likely that this will result in a reskilling and redeployment of resources between the back and front offices over time, and from a regional perspective, as opposed to major reductions in overall public servant workforce numbers.

The current crisis has seen significant redeployment of resources on a reactive basis and out of necessity.  A longer-term and more strategic approach should be developed that includes:

  • A sector-wide strategic workforce plan that includes the workforce profile (level, age, location and skills), drivers of service demand, workplace capacity and dynamic modelling capability for the reskilling, reactive and proactive redeployment of staff and impact of new technologies
  • Development of new national models based on the learnings from current working arrangements that rebalance the centralised location of offices and staff to more remote and distributed arrangements
  • The formalisation of arrangements for access to increased workforce capacity at short notice as part of business continuity management

 

The ’new normal’ in terms of how, where and when we all work will be significantly different to the models we used before the crisis.  This is presenting challenges and uncertainties in the short term.  But it is also providing valuable lessons and insights into the future of work, which has arrived much sooner than expected!  There can be many benefits to these new arrangements for citizens, businesses and society as a whole if introduced in a balanced way.  And as they have done in the current crisis, public servants have shown that they can take the lead in establishing these new ways of working as ‘new normal’.

 

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