The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the public sector's lagging technological investment, but, it's also revealed a latent agility few expected. It’s been just over two months since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the emerging global health crisis a pandemic, and the Canadian government’s actions have been swift and significant. From launching the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to a portfolio of support measures for small business, the federal government has moved uncharacteristically fast to help those in need. Provincial and local governments have also moved quickly to address emerging needs in real time, such as re-assigning workers to essential services, increasing the amount of outdoor space in our cities, and finding shelter for the homeless to self-isolate.
While the public sector has long held a reputation for being slow-moving and risk averse, the pandemic has shown that speed is possible when the stakes are high enough. But what does that mean for organizations once the crisis has abated? Even before the pandemic, the world was changing at a speed never before seen in history. The wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of our lives to digital was well underway, and public sector agencies were already late to the party. All signs point to the current crisis as a catalyst to accelerate that transformation even further. At the same time, citizens will be looking to our governments to guide them through a period of prolonged uncertainty, right at a time when the pressure to do more with less is at its highest due to historical levels of stimulus spending along with a decrease in revenue generating activities.
Public sector organizations must take this opportunity to continue on this new path of agility and accelerate digital transformation to meet the needs of citizens in the post-COVID-19 era. Here are three key areas of focus for public sector leaders:
As citizens’ need for public sector support and guidance grows, organizations will need to focus on how to more efficiently translate taxpayer dollars into measurable citizen outcomes. It might be tempting for leaders to shelve technology upgrades at a time when high stimulus spending is already straining budgets, however, ignoring the need for digital transformation could put public sector organizations at risk of not being able to deliver the level of service needed. It’s not about avoiding the spend for the sake of austerity; rather, it’s about ensuring the ROI on every dollar spent benefits – and can be shown to benefit – citizens.
Taking a data-driven approach to workforce management will help leaders identify wasted time, money, and resource allocation. This action translates into that measurable impact on citizen outcomes because it means managers can better manage labor costs in real time, and match resources to demand for services in a more efficient way. It will also help managers understand the costs associated with overtime and absenteeism, as well as the causes, so that these issues can be corrected. These insights will help organizations refocus the workforce onto higher-value outcomes for citizens, instead of lower-value tasks – and report on those benefits more transparently.
The right technology can also help to automate manual processes to reduce the administrative burden on managers, so they can focus on developing and engaging the workforce to improve service delivery. An added benefit to automation is that it can help organizations better manage compliance with union rules and the complex, ever-changing regulations that govern the workforce. This will reduce the burden on HR teams, allowing them to focus on recruitment, retention, and reskilling.
And self-serve technology tools can help empower workers both during and after the pandemic, while allowing managers to skip tasks like processing employee requests and focus on higher-value strategic work. Self-serve tools for ongoing training personalized to employees’ roles can also result in improved security practices to help safeguard sensitive personal data and classified information.
The public sector is unique in that it has a blend of front-line workers and back-office employees, posing a variety of different challenges to business continuity during a crisis. On the one hand, organizations had to transition back-office staff to remote work when they were ill-prepared to do so – resulting in everything from employees having to take paid vacation due to a lack of bandwidth and equipment, to the limitations of 50-year-old legacy systems on moving quickly to serve citizens. On the other hand, front line workers were facing an increased risk of illness or being quarantined, making it difficult to keep track of employees’ health and well-being, or manage staffing levels.
Technology can support business continuity in several ways. It creates an opportunity for better knowledge management – digitally capturing information so employees can more easily cover each other’s roles. Not only is there a risk of employees getting sick or being quarantined right now, the so-called “Silver Tsunami” of retiring baby boomers was already creating a labor shortage in the sector and will continue to do so. Organizations will need to be able to rapidly transition knowledge to the next generation of workers to ensure business continuity long after the pandemic ends.
The public sector will also need to consider how to ensure business continuity for future disruptions, as well as how the nature of work may change permanently. Some are predicting that the pandemic may lead to a more geographically distributed workforce, with more people working from home to save on operating expenses. This will change how public sector leaders manage teams, and technology will play a key role in creating a unified culture and ensuring efficiency.
The pandemic has accelerated the need to usher in the next generation of the workforce. The skills that have the most value were already changing prior to the crisis, and there is a new emphasis on adaptability and resilience, which the pandemic has made even more important. At the same time, the increased role of technology in society, along with the move toward automating lower-value tasks for operational efficiency, is increasing the level of technology skill needed in the public sector workforce.
While the public sector has struggled to attract younger talent due to high competition from the private sector prior to the pandemic, there is an opportunity to change the younger generations' perceptions of being a civil servant - right now. Organizations can take this opportunity to embrace technology, transition to more flexible working models (location, hours), and inspire younger workers to serve their communities. Building a truly tech-driven workplace would give employees the best of all worlds – job security, good salaries, deep value, and flexibility – greatly strengthening its appeal and ability to compete for top talent.
Introducing a learning platform can also help improve attraction and engagement for millennial and Gen Z employees who want to keep their skills sharp and grow their careers. Learning platforms allow for a personalized learning experience that suits a multi-generational workforce, and can be tied to performance, succession planning, and organizational goals to drive career development and help close the skills gap.
I have spent most of my career in the public sector, and believe this pandemic has underscored how essential it is in the eyes of all citizens. After all, it is the public sector that has kept our nation working during this unprecedented time. However, more disruption awaits on the horizon, and uncertainty has become our new normal. As such, the importance of modernizing the public sector to enable faster crisis response delivered by the best talent available – whether in an office or from their homes – has never been more apparent.