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Public sector employees and the government workforce of the future

The world has changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the expectations and behaviour of citizens around the world have been shifting for some time, this sudden global crisis has accelerated existing trends.

When undertaking transactions or searching for vital information, for example, people no longer differentiate between services provided by the public and private sector but assume they will all be equally personalised, timely, and responsive.

This situation is putting public authorities, many of which have traditionally operated in silos, under increasing pressure to operate in a more citizen and customer-centric way. But for this change to take place transformation is required at the organisational, people, process, and technology level.

Ram Venkatraman, managing director of EY’s People Advisory Services, explains: “In most cases, things have changed little in the last 15 to 20 years. But shifting demographics and customer expectations mean there needs to be a shift, so all four of these areas will require some kind of refresh or transformation at the individual agency level.”

In people terms, a key challenge for many public sector organisations relates to the ageing demographic of the workforce. This is an issue on several levels.

As Mr Venkatraman says: “Staff retention tends to be generally good in the public sector, but it’s a double-edged sword because they want to stay put with out-dated skillsets and not be ready to embrace change, which can make transformations difficult.”

The problem is that over the next 10 years, particularly in developed nations, such as the US and UK, high number of workers are likely to retire, leading to a drain in institutional knowledge. But the younger generation is often not attracted to a public sector that is all too frequently seen as bureaucratic, poorly paid and lacking in innovation.

However, there are a number of approaches that employers can take in order to address this lack of interest. The first and most important is defining the organisation’s purpose – that is, what the organisation does and why it exists - and communicating these messages clearly to potential job candidates.

Looking at things more holistically

Michael Boedewig, partner at EY, explains: “It’s important to lay out the collective purpose and mission, which means looking at things more holistically. It also involves evaluating the employee value proposition and working out your elevator pitch to convince new graduates why they should come and work for you.”

Defining the organisation’s purpose in clear terms is likely to appeal not only to younger people, for whom such ideas are highly valued, but also to people from more diverse backgrounds. If combined with carefully thought-through employer branding and tailored communications that reflect the organisation’s vision, such activity should help to boost the size of the applicant pool.

Other strategies that are starting to be employed by public authorities in Singapore include the introduction of a “buy, build or borrow” approach. On the buy side of the equation, for example, a “conversion programme” has been devised to hire in best-of-class employees from the private sector, says Samir Bedi, a partner in EY’s People Advisory Service.

In talent-building terms, meanwhile, the focus is on staff development and training, not least in terms of increasing the prevalence of digital skills in order to create a more “digital mind set” within organisations. “You don’t have to be a data scientist, but you do need to understand how to work with data to bring about better outcomes,” Mr Bedi says.

As for the borrowing element, this takes the form of employee secondments between different public bodies so they can network and gain experience of different ways of working. Secondments in both directions with the private sector are also taking place to ensure the transfer of best practice.

But as well as putting talent management programmes in place, many public authorities will also find it necessary to update and revamp their processes. For example, Mr Venkatraman cites one US higher education institution that takes over 20 days to simply post a job because eight to ten stakeholders are involved in the approvals process – and it is certainly not the only one in this situation.

Unsurprisingly then, it takes between 40 and 60 per cent longer to fill a position in the public as opposed to the private sector, Mr Venkatraman says, with ageing technology often not helping as it acts as a block.

Enabling transformation

But this situation only flags up just how vital it is that digital transformation is made a strategic priority – with many possible lessons to be learned from the rapid action taken by many of the world’s employers to move their employee base to a remote working model in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such lessons will inevitably not only include how to embrace rapid technological change but also how to deal with the cultural shifts required to ensure such transformation is sustainable into the future.

Other challenges, meanwhile, include the need to remove organisational silos in order to enable better collaboration and a more joined-up approach as well as create a more meritocratic, performance-based culture.

But key to making such visions reality is the influence of “charismatic leaders”, perhaps brought in from outside, who are motivated and “open-minded enough to think differently and be willing to try new things, which includes not punishing people if their ideas fail but encouraging them to learn from it”, Mr Boedewig says.

“Leadership is crucial, but you also need members of the team to play to their strengths,” he explains. “It’s about formulating teams that are not only made up of valuable individual contributors but are greater than the sum of their parts.”

All of this means that the public sector workforce of the future is likely to look quite different from that of today. While many HR leaders already recognise the challenges and understand that transformation is required, as implementation starts to take place the employee population is likely to shift towards becoming progressively younger, more diverse, and more digitally-literate, among other things.

Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis, shifting demographics, changing customer expectations and the march of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, which will replace and reshape many existing roles, make such transformation inevitable if public sector organisations are to prosper in the future.