by | MOHD HASAN MOHD SAAID, email@example.com
Government services are now on the brink of disruption. On one hand, government services need to manage the public as “consumers”. Yet, the public sector needs to provide the best services while facing tough scrutiny over cost management in order to sustain economic stability.
While public service reform is nothing new, it requires a high degree of collaborative efforts to constantly improve public service delivery over time. It is also be defined as impacting change to the structures and processes of the public sector—its organisations and services, tied to the objective of improving efficiency and capability. Various reforms had taken place in past years to structures, sectors, service regulations, productivity arrangements and front-line service delivery, to name a few. However, in addressing public sector digitalisation, a white paper in 2017 titled “Government with the People: A New Formula for Creating Public Value” published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) labelled governments as “the dinosaurs of the digital age: slow, lumbering and outdated”.
Earlier in 2013, World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) and the Governance Global Practice launched ieGovern. The programme produced rigorous evidence in a bid to improve governance and push the frontiers of knowledge regarding other evidences on what would work best in governance reforms. Now, the programme has 31 Impact Evaluation (IEs) portfolios world-wide that study four main themes:
- civil service reform;
- public financial management (tax and procurement);
- decentralisation/subnational public-sector management.
Saliently, the study examines the landscape of reform frameworks centred on incentives, demand and top-down accountability, constraints, and delivery mechanism.
To put things into perspective, Malaysia’s public service reforms seek to establish a link between the public sector and the country’s national vision, e.g. Shared Prosperity Visions 2030 (SPV2030). Now, reforms are aimed at addressing global concerns such as Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs 2030) and megatrends. Also, the change agenda takes into account critical factors like the adoption of emerging technologies, for example, Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies to generate a shift in thinking and cultivate a new approach in delivering services.
Productivity is a main emphasis in public service reforms. Productivity gain however, involves shaping the right mindset and coaching public officials to optimise resources, explore innovative business models and embrace emerging technologies. To ensure a smooth implementation, from getting ideas in motion all the way to execution, clear policy directions and strategic approaches are needed.
Key areas for better service delivery:
Resource optimisation is a practice in public service that determines how services are delivered to the public. Optimisation of resources minimises the impact public service activities have on the environment. Sustainable practices such as innovating to zero, the circular economy and green energy are key to commit to active optimisation. In addition, the public sector needs to explore alternative business models that avoid process redundancy and promote personalised services.
BUSINESS MODEL DELIVERY
Business process re-engineering or BPR is a tool that can be implemented to avoid redundant and unnecessary processes. However, a digital mindset and a unified approach to business processes are needed to ensure the right business models are in place. Prior to COVID-19, Morocco instructed its Digital Development Agency to create a 25-year digital strategy called “Morocco Digital 2025.” The digital transformation plan outlined key priorities and laid down a marker by evaluating the viability of past programmes including Digital Morocco 2013. Going forward, the plan has been designed to position Morocco as a regional digital hub and enhance the country’s digital governance. But given the severity of the pandemic outbreak, some of the plan’s digital services are being sped up ahead of their implementation schedules by the Moroccan government. This highlights a compelling reason why governments need to be progressive in implementing and adopting new business models as behavioural psychology and economics often appear to play a bigger role in designing interventions.
COLLABORATION IN SERVICE DELIVERY
Service delivery is a shared responsibility of multi-sided government stakeholders and agencies. Case in point, Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Visions 2030 outlines the nation’s inspiration to work together as a strong unit for the greater good of its society. Collaboration models such as public-private partnerships (PPP) are broad sets of tools that can be helpful in the effort to deliver quality services. PPPs in governance and the public service are akin to contractual arrangements between public and private sector entities. Of these, the public sector gets to take advantage of deploying private sector efficiency to deliver public services. For hundreds of years, diverse forms of PPPs have been used to deliver infrastructure services. Today, PPPs still remain a relevant tool to increase and improve the delivery of infrastructure services.
However, implementing PPP is complex. To navigate the complexity, governments must be committed and thoughtful in crafting appropriate PPPs especially in regards to mega infrastructure projects. To bring focus to the effort, the public sector plays a pivotal role in building awareness of government initiatives, goals, perceptions and acceptance by soliciting stakeholder engagement and involvement.
Public service digitalisation
The main intent of the introduction of service digitalisation is aimed at improving public sector service integrity. In digitalising government services, legal instruments are an important support function to improve service delivery. Of these, legal provisions such as legal risk management and cybersecurity-related acts are needed, and existing ones will require strengthening.
Cybersecurity has never been more important to government services these days. However, it has not kept pace with formidable threats that have become increasingly sophisticated. Top cybersecurity threats include weaponised email attachments and links, ransomware, micro-breaches, and browser-based password hijackers. COVID-19 does not only witness the rise of everyday e-conference, but also the birth of ‘Zoombombing’, a growing nuisance involving unscrupulous hackers gate crashing group video chats. Recently, Ernst & Young (EY) outlined a few key measures governments can adopt to combat cyber threats as follows:
- Understand their citizens better and achieve better outcomes
- Provide services more effectively and efficiently
- Find new solutions to policy challenges
- Engage with external partners to develop new delivery models
- Commercialise some public services and develop fresh sources of revenue
The overarching goal of digital governance is to place an emphasis on shared-values and integrity. Similarly, public service’s digital governance needs to deliver on these mandates. With millions of Malaysians working and attending virtual schools from home during COVID-19’s movement control order, the longstanding gap between those who have reliable, affordable internet and those who don’t has never been so clear. Evidently, the internet makes for a crucial information gateway for citizens to access information about the virus. Human Rights Watch says that closing this digital divide is a necessary measure to preserve human rights during the outbreak. Quite significantly, addressing the digital divide will be essential in public service reform.
Malaysia is currently moving towards a national digital identity. Malaysia’s National Digital Identity, is a verifiable platform of trust aimed at verifying virtual identities on the internet. Considerable efforts have been undertaken to ensure Malaysia is ready to accommodate a move to digital backed by sound telecommunication infrastructure. Given that most government services are already online, Malaysia needs to bump up its digital and telecommunication infrastructure readiness. This is to make sure that the public service’s digital transformation is able to support the nation’s digital economy growth. Also, the transformation needs to encourage an inclusive digital lifestyle as promoted by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s (MCMC) National Fiberisation and Connectivity (NFCP) strategy.
To achieve digital trust, the public sector needs to create a digital working environment that is both safe and trusted. For example, Estonia’s e-government system uses a number of robust digital principles to keep its data secured. The Estonian government includes the “once only principle”, which promises that only one government department or group can hold a certain kind of data at any one time. Estonian addresses, for example, are only held on the if one address is needed by someone else, they need to ask the registry for
permission. Data isn’t held on multiple servers to prevent hackers from stealing information and striking an attack on areas viewed as weak links. Another guiding mantra embraced by the Estonian government is its “digital by default” principle. All information submitted on paper must be stored into a digital system where it can be better protected. Although the Estonian government can’t track instances like nosy public service employees sniffing around looking at personal information on a sheet of paper, it keeps a log record of these digital files’ viewers. This way, the government is able to manage how its public sector manages personal data.
Malaysia’s plan to implement 5G is currently in the works. This will enable citizens to connect more devices to the Internet, store and process on virtual clouds and automate mundane tasks. Inevitably, all these tasks will create new behaviours and lifestyles. Therefore, this calls for the public service to retool its capability. And in 5G’s terms, it spells out digitalisation. By shifting the sector’s mentality to digital, this will allow the nation to leapfrog traditional stages of development. Modernising service delivery and adopting breakthrough technologies such as fiberisation, 5G, AI, blockchain, and big data are pivotal tools to exploit economic opportunities that digital technologies can offer.
Digital banks and e-wallets are seeing an uptick in demand as the world scrambles to fight COVID-19. Social distancing measures are rapidly turning digital transactions into a necessity. Cash handouts no longer require physical presence. As a result, world economies will be positively influenced by digitalisation. This sudden shift will place an even stronger basis for the maturation of a cashless society. All these advances will lay more focus on public experience—seamlessly integrating digital payments, banking, payroll, and government services. In response, the public sector needs to reassess the viability of predictive services and adopt emerging technologies. By this, governments can better prepare for the kinds of services expected from the public sector.
In the fight to beat COVID-19, governments around the world have resorted to be bold with new technologies such as facial recognition, mobile apps and big data to track the spread of the outbreak and monitor people under quarantine. In China, app monitoring observes daily temperature of students preparing to return to school or assigning people colour codes based on their travels, time spent in outbreak hotpots and exposure to potential carriers of the virus. Meanwhile, in South Korea, private software developers have set up websites and apps to help people track cases and shun places visited by infected patients. The information enabled web developers to build detailed maps in order to track the movements of patients. Those in quarantine are monitored through a mobile app and people who breach self-isolation rules will be made to wear an electronic wristband, according to local media reports. This strategy outlines how South Korea has managed to keep the virus outbreak at bay. Similarly, all these capabilities can be applied in other life threatening situations like floods, earthquakes and social unrest.
Enabling a digital workplace that incorporates online and virtual collaborations can lead to a number of productivity gains. Nonetheless, this remote working concept has been a common practice by progressive companies in developed countries, long before the pandemic hit. Perhaps the practice is here to stay, and it has proven to positively impact businesses with better outcomes.
WORKFORCE OF PUBLIC SERVICE
To boost future workforce’s readiness, governments need to be proactive in reskilling and upskilling public service’s talents. On to public service delivery, the public sector needs to equip its workforce with the ability to engage teams that are dispersed through various locations. Pandemic situations like COVID-19 have made it mandatory for public officials to work remotely from home, although for some, it’s their first time doing so. This shift also highlights the ability for public officials to be ‘prosumers’ and tech savvy to cope with workplace changes in the future. An innovative working culture needs to be cultivated, where ever it may be, at the office or home, for the public service to strive after better results in service delivery.
Politics and Power
From a purely governance standpoint, the formulation and implementation of public policies are prone to political and power plays. Evidently, the World Bank pointed out that decentralisation of federal power is a popular reform agenda for many countries, including OECD, middle-income, and poor countries. Yet, changing political will could result in inconsistent policy directions and changes. However, for public service officials, they need to uphold and maintain political neutrality in performing their duties. Therefore, policy directions need to consider the erratic nature of politics to ‘future proof’ government strategies and actions as well as decouple public service decisions from political interventions.
In times of crisis, only true leadership and leaders will stand out. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries were already facing economic and social instability. While some countries will inevitably descend into a deeper crisis when a number of health and economic factors combine to worsen their circumstances, a few others will emerge from the crisis with their workforces, economies, and political institutions largely intact. But others will experience human and financial devastation on a scale never seen before in generations. Thus, public service leaders should not only manage the crisis well but seize the opportunity to reform the sector. Some will do well well while others flounder. However, the difference in outcomes will largely depend, above all, on leadership. Maybe an aphorism of the 19th century by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “what doesn’t kill you make you stronger” can be used as an affirmation of resilience.