by | AZMIL MOHD AMIN, firstname.lastname@example.org
Thinking in new boxes: Global crisis to spark public sector transformation
Six months into 2020, the world is a very different place. Although physically distant, the world must now stand together as it unites to fight COVID-19’s pandemic outbreak. Foreseeably, when COVID-19 recedes, it will leave behind a severe crisis. However, a lot of the post crisis management will be navigated by the public sector. Although the macro view of traditional public service is not encouraging, it is an opportune time for change simply because there is no better time to act, but now.
Currently, the public sector is under immense pressure. Amid intensifying scrutiny over efficiency, transparency and service delivery, vast sections of the public all around the world are heaping pressure on the public sector. This assault is happening on multiple fronts. Most rampant, however, takes place on social media. Despite this, it is a good example of public impact.
Clearly, the public sector needs to deliver better outcomes for citizens, such as through improved digital services. Governments, inevitably, have to wake up to this. It underscores the public sector’s competency deficit and why an institutional reform, or a revamp of the public sector’s core activities needs to be seen through with a sense of urgency.
Increasing urbanisation, greying world population and a workforce that needs reskilling and adapt to technological innovations compound to make the public sector vulnerable. Essentially, to bring meaningful change requires cultivating a new mindset and a renewed focus on inclusivity, innovation, accountability and integrity.
Against today’s sobering backdrop, this article attempts to identify the main shifts and reform agendas needed to transform public sector’s services. All of this points to the need to address cost pressure and foster better alignment with public attitudes and expectations. In this article, we will look at a number of key milestones the public sector needs to reach to equal the challenges of the 2020s.
A. Crisis an opportunity to embrace change
Crisis is a good time to retool the public sector’s emphasis on creating a high performing government and stakeholder synergies. While there is certainly no shortage of ideas, there must be a renewed focus on value. In short, the public sector should prioritise services that are most important to its citizens, especially in areas where satisfaction is low. By adopting collaborative technologies and platforms, governments can achieve a much greater focus that puts their citizens’ shared-interests first.
>> CONSEQUENCES & IMPLICATIONS
- Review the empowerment of institutional and public service integrity.
In an attempt to speed up development, decentralised power and work delegation will increase as governments battle overwhelming workloads. Though this may give rise to bribery and corruption, law empowerment needs to be tightened.
- Review legal framework to ensure good governance is in place.
As many regulations are being suspended temporarily, not all will return to normal. Much more attention will be paid to whether lighter-touch regulations are needed to stimulate economic growth. Legal systems will likely be clogged-up for some time with contractual disputes and arguments over ‘force majeure’.
- Institutional change will be key in addressing concerns over security, risks, legal issues, and compliance as well as combine to slow things down.
B. Making sense of public attitudes and expectations
Currently, the public is placing historical demands on the public sector. Public members are also seeking more engagement in decisions about public service delivery. It is abundantly clear that citizens have been much less willing to interact with governments in traditional ways. The rapid emergence of mobile apps, cloud computing, social media, and big data—all unheard of not that long ago—is a vivid reminder that digital is a revolution that is far from complete. To date, governments have succeeded in bringing a large number of services online, but there is much still to do. In this regard, dignity, respect and transparency of the services offered by the public sector are core satisfaction drivers for a digital government. Admittedly, this won’t be straightforward. These days, just downloading or filling in online forms in is no longer good enough. Citizens want easy-to-navigate and intuitive user interfaces, one-click or no-touch servicing, and easily accessible online support and service. It is time to boost investments in seamless end-to-end capabilities. While COVID-19 has caused a severe international health and economic crisis, the World Health Organisation’s head calls the spread of false information on the virus an “infodemic”. Misleading information circulates rapidly on social media. “Overabundance” of information makes it difficult for citizens to tell apart truthful and trustworthy sources from false and misleading ones. With ever increasing numbers of online users and mobile devices, governments must continue to meet this challenge head on and not flinch from any barriers
that may arise.
Thus, to combat misinformation, a policy-driven communication plan needs to be prepared beforehand to manage the integrity and flow of crucial information when a crisis occurs. The plan should define who should be given specific information, when that information should be delivered and which communication channels will be used to deliver the information. It’s essential to support multi-stakeholder actions with the right messages and reinforcements. Looking at the ways information travels nowadays, this requires the public sector to work closely with citizens across various social media sites. As the battle against fake news is likely to last as long as the virus, managing expectations on social platforms will be key in managing public attitudes and expectations. Today, it must be noted, when public sector’s multistakeholder coordination goes awry, it could set off hostile public attitudes and expectations, a damage that is costly to rectify.
>> CONSEQUENCES & IMPLICATIONS
- Insight-driven anticipatory approaches. As more people voluntarily surrender personal data (such as medical, genomic, contact and location data) to contribute to shared causes these days, a robust governance structure that protects personal data is pivotal to cultivate government trust.
- Entrepreneurial mindset among government agencies. So it begs the question, will governments’ economic priorities and policies shift away from productivity towards employment to ensure a safety net for all?
C. Public sector readiness to embrace change despite resource limitation
As pressures on funding and demand for services grow, governments need to persevere as the impact of basic improvements, such as the ability to access all government services digitally, is huge. Although the public sector constantly faces questions over funding, if the allocation of resources continue to be curtailed, can the degree of improvement be sustained? This is the question that needs to be addressed to allow the public sector to attain a focus on cost optimisation.
>>CONSEQUENCES & IMPLICATIONS
- Restructuring and streamlining government agencies’ tasks for better organisational design. New collaboration modes between public and private sectors will emerge to scale future capacity. For example, hotels designed and partly funded by governments will act as hospital overspill when the need arises. There have been many instances the world over where governments nationalising hospitals and healthcare providers to combat the spread of COVID-19. In Malaysia, it took only three days to transform Malaysia Agro Exposition Park’s (MAEPS) exhibition halls into huge makeshift temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients.
- Practice good governance through collaborative technology platforms. Technological solutions may help combat the epidemic, cope with the movement restriction, and ease economic consequences. Despite the crisis, it will lead to many new innovations, including permanent changes in the use of digital solutions and distributed governance models. There will also be an increased interest not only in collaboration-over-distance, but in fully decentralised organisations, together with governance structures and decentralised technologies that will enable these future shifts.
- The public sector should prioritise services that are most important to their citizens where satisfaction is low. Recently, South Korean and Taiwanese governments organised local distributions through partnerships with private pharmacies and four large convenience store chains. Evidently, this is a good example of what organisational agility can do in times of crisis.
Currently, the public sector faces a capability gap brought on not only by technological disruption, but also striking generational differences. Taking a unified, coordinated approach to improve service delivery can be challenging, particularly when the bottlenecks cross a large number of departmental dividing lines. How fast can the public sector bring about change? This question is best left to governments’ top leadership. However, what can be said is, it is time for the public sector to retool its talent strategy to keep up with change in digital and attract modern talent. While institutionalising a new culture and replacing some of the public sector’s outdated practices will inevitably take time, joint-effort to reskill the public sector’s human capital should be implemented consistently. Ultimately, the rewards in efficiencies achieved and impact enhanced should fuel the public sector’s journey in the years ahead.