Fit to lead: how to tackle the COVID assault course

By on 24/04/2022 | Updated on 24/04/2022
Cartoon image of civil servants completing an assault course
What doesn’t kill you… Having dealt with the pandemic, many civil service managers have emerged as more effective leaders. Illustration by Katy Smith

The pandemic has presented civil service leaders with huge challenges – but it has also provided “the best leadership development and identification exercise there ever was”. At the 2022 Global Government Summit, Matt Ross hears national leaders detail the skills required of the next generation of civil service chiefs

When COVID-19 first emerged, said Tan Ching Yee, those civil service leaders who’d learned the lessons of the 2004-04 SARS outbreak tended to respond most effectively. “Then as COVID lasted through 2020, and kept changing its form, those who could adapt and adapt fast were the people who succeeded. And as COVID drags into a third year, I think we find out who among us can last the distance and remain positive – especially for the people we lead,” said Tan, the permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Finance. “If I can put it this way, COVID is probably the best leadership development and identification exercise there ever was. That said, I’d like this exercise to end now!”

As Tan had observed, COVID’s uncanny knack of exposing weaknesses in every field – from health to household incomes, and from logistics to leadership – has also revealed where strength lies, illuminating the forms of management best suited to today’s tumultuous world. And these were the topic at the last session at the 2022 Global Government Summit, which brought together top leaders from 14 countries for two days of informal, online discussion and debate earlier this year.

A stronger centre

For Dustin Brown, deputy assistant director for management in the USA’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), one key challenge is that of improving public servants’ ability to manage programmes reaching across departments. There’s a need, he said, to think “much more strategically about the tools that our civil servants in the centre of government need if they’re going to be effective” – supporting line departments to improve both citizens’ experiences of public services, and their ability to realise governments’ policy goals.

Tan Ching Yee

“We’re facing horizontal problems, and yet we have vertical organisations,” Brown commented; so the centre needs “governance systems and structures to make decisions that cut across organisational boundaries.” And when the centre makes such decisions, he added, it needs the capacity to follow through.

When, for example, the OMB reformed the infrastructure permitting process, it was able to cut decision times by 45% – “but that only happened because we have a fully dedicated team” of 20 staff working on the project, said Brown. If the centre does little more than “write the memo with the requirements that get passed down, then we’re adding additional responsibilities onto people who already have a full plate.”

So in today’s world, the idea “that the kind of skillsets we need in the centre of government are focused primarily on policy should be questioned,” he added. “We need a set of skills that really appreciate the role of implementation. The kind of skillsets that I’ve hired onto my immediate team are people with MBAs, not necessarily our public policy schools.”

Pushing v persuading

The centre also needs levers to chivvy departments forwards on such cross-cutting programmes – and Michael Wernick, former clerk to the privy council of Canada, noted that there’s a lively debate over just how much leverage it should exert. “The decentralists make the argument that [departments] will adapt and innovate faster if they’re left to do their own thing,” he said. “I’m not of that school, because what it leads to is a proliferation of different financial systems, different standards, problems in interoperability.”

A lack of central powers has certainly slowed a cross-cutting reform programme in one participant’s country: “We’re inching our way forwards,” they commented. “One of the challenges has been that it’s not necessarily mandated by government; it’s something that we’ve tried to implement by encouraging people to want to come along on this journey. That’s had really mixed success.”

Another challenge for the centre, commented Brown, is that of making use of governments’ ever-growing stocks of data. The OMB’s federal staff survey provides information on engagement levels in 28,000 teams across the workforce, he noted, providing insights into “where some of the risks are, where some of the performance challenges are.”

Design for users, not departments

And data is just as important in improving service delivery – providing the evidence to support a focus on outcomes rather than simply on resources expended, and supporting far more streamlined and accessible services. Too often, said Brown, people are “forced to go through multiple agencies and multiple steps” to meet the requirements around a particular life event. This “stands in start contrast to the experiences they have come to expect and demand” from the private sector, he added.

Using data to improve services demands “human-centred design skills”, Brown continued: this represents a “fundamentally different way of approaching problem-solving”, breaking with the traditional method of “getting officials at the most senior levels in a room to write the policy memo.”

Instead, he said, civil servants should first understand service users’ needs and experiences, putting these at the heart of policy design. And this focus on users must be maintained throughout the development process, commented Taimar Peterkop, the state secretary of digital pioneer Estonia: “It’s important not to let the IT people develop the services, because they will develop services for the IT people,” he said. “Technically, they will probably be very good services, but most of the citizens won’t be able to use them!”

Get the tech

Kevin Cunnington

The centrality of data, life events and human-centred design in a discussion on leadership skills illustrates the importance of digital technologies in realising governments’ goals – and Kevin Cunnington, former director general of the UK’s government digital service, had some invaluable pointers on the topic.

Working with Global Government Forum, he explained, he recently carried out some research: interviewing CIOs from seven digitally-advanced nations, he’s produced a report setting out “the here-and-now challenges facing the leading countries in the world”.

Read more: Asking the experts: What do digital leaders need to succeed?

The report’s first finding, Cunnington explained, concerns national digital strategies – which are often “quite samey, quite wordy,” and “all talk about similar things. If I was being a bit provocative, I’d say you can pick up one, change the name of the country, copy and paste it and call it your own.” The differentiating factors lie not in the vision, he continued, but in the implementation plan: strategies that set out in detail the required funding, powers, performance metrics and delivery responsibilities typically support much better progress.

Second, Cunnington described the “great digital divide: countries that have digital ID are racing ahead. They are the ‘haves’. The countries that have not cracked digital ID – and the vast majority of countries have not – are falling behind, because they simply don’t have the ability to recognise individuals and to join up data on those individuals.” Building this capability is much easier for countries with an existing national ID system that can be used as the spine of a digital solution, he added.

Leo Yip

Know your customer

This joining up of data around the individual is “an essential building block of a digital government,” commented Leo Yip, head of Civil Service of Singapore. The city-state – another nation at the forefront of digital – got around this “very complex challenge” by designating agencies as “trusted centres” for specific kinds of data. “So if I want business data, I go to this particular agency – and they gather that data, organise it, and avail it to the rest of us,” he explained. “It’s an important building block. You can digitalise government at the front end, but until you digitalise government upstream – where all the data resides – and then organise that and make it available to the rest of government, [progress] will be constrained.”

Cunnington also warned that in many countries, “digital is not an invest-in area any more” – yet “it needs to be, because most countries that have complicated legacy [systems] haven’t addressed the legacy much at all; they’ve built largely new services instead. And even where they don’t have such a legacy, the stuff built ten years ago is rapidly becoming legacy.”

Even Estonia – whose ‘No Legacy’ policy requires it to renew systems every 12 years – has legacy constraints, noted Peterkop: the country has an advanced health records system, but it proved poorly suited to handling vaccination data. Ethical concerns also limited officials’ options during the pandemic: they could have linked up data held in various agencies to “trace the people who are sick [with COVID] or have been in contact with them,” Peterkop added – but leaders exercised restraint. “Once you build a ‘big brother’, then you cannot unbuild it.”

There’s a particular need, commented Wernick, for investment in what he called “G2G services: the part of the public service that provides pay, IT, security, cybersecurity, property…” That mirrors Singapore’s experience, said Yip: surveys carried out there a few years ago found that the “positive impact of digital transformation on citizens and businesses was much stronger than its impact on our own employees, whose expectations had not yet been met.” The government subsequently stepped up its efforts to ensure that digitalisation programmes benefited civil servants in their work, he added.

A lack of leadership

Cunnington’s next findings covered governments’ systems of procurement, spending approval and project management – which typically provide a poor fit with digital programmes – and the challenge of building digital workforces, where at most levels “all the front runners are saying that’s no longer a problem.”

While many countries have rapidly developed their digital cadres, however, they still struggle to attract and retain senior digital leaders – particularly where nations have “an advanced tech sector, and where pay is constrained to the pay of their political masters,” commented Cunnington. “These countries are suffering really acutely from not having the right leadership in place – and the bottom line is that [capping salaries is] a false economy. Government ends up wasting far more money by not getting its major programmes right than it ever saves by implementing these kinds of pay restraints.”

Finally, Cunnington said that departmental leaders “often lack the understanding and commitment to drive digital transformation” – and without their full engagement, transformation projects flounder. CIOs “don’t have the longevity, the authority, the mandate to make those decisions,” he noted.

Leaders don’t need to be digital specialists, commented Peterkop – who worked in law and the military before taking senior digital jobs: “Leadership is leadership: it’s important to demystify the IT, the cyber.” Yet as Yip pointed out, “you cannot drive digital transformation with digitally illiterate senior leaders.” Departmental chiefs need both a good understanding of digitally-enabled business transformation, and the courage and ambition to make big changes in the pursuit of better government.

Pandemic positives

Finding such leaders is not straightforward – particularly given the demographic challenges affecting many countries, commented Wernick: “In Canada, with the ‘baby boomer’ retirement and the growth in other sectors, we’re going to be fighting to retain talent over the next five to 10 years.” But Peter Pogačar, director general of the public sector directorate in Slovenia’s Ministry of Public Administration, pointed to a silver lining accompanying COVID-19: “During the pandemic, the image of public service really improved among the people, because they saw that in the end the public service is the one you can always rely on,” he said. “So the image, the perception of public service changed significantly for the better.”

Certainly, the pandemic has “given an opportunity for the public service to be more visible,” commented Hannah Cameron, deputy commissioner in New Zealand’s Public Service Commission. “There are opportunities to capitalise on that.”

Though Cameron would not use these words, New Zealand has of course had a good pandemic (as discussed in her recent interview with GGF). But trust in the public service was already rising before COVID-19 arrived, she said, naming some of the contributory factors identified in research. One key element is “the responsiveness and the reliability of the services [citizens] have received,” she commented; another is about “the human interaction” – with people perceiving public servants as honest and fair. One challenge for the Public Service Commission, she added, is to help citizens to understand that the person whose help and assistance they’ve so valued “is part of an overall system called the public service, so their experience of an individual is attributed to the institution.”

Read more: Trust and teamwork: Hannah Cameron on how New Zealand dodged the COVID bullet

As Tan Ching Yee had spotted, though, COVID-19 always finds cracks in the defences – and in New Zealand the government discovered that some poorer, rural or Maori populations weren’t taking up the vaccine. “That became a big national conversation about the inequities that exist within New Zealand,” said Cameron. “When it meant that part of the population wasn’t vaccinated and that had an impact on everyone else, people paid more attention.” Testing different ways into the problem, public service leaders accepted that “government can’t be the best channel to reach all communities, and that sometimes they have to cede control to community groups.”

Common challenges, collective opportunities

As the session drew to a close Albert Chua, permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment, recalled the first emergency meeting held to discuss COVID-19. At that time, he remembered, veterans of the 2003 SARS outbreak “confidently predicted we’re going to get over this in six months. Two years later, we’re still here.”

During this period, public servants have achieved amazing things: “I’ve never been more proud of the public service,” said Chua. “I think it’s trust – between the government, public service and people – that’s getting us through this COVID fight; trust will also get us through the fight on the climate front. How do you persuade people to forego convenience? To pay more? To make sacrifices for future generations? I think it all goes down to trust.”

As civil service leaders work to build public trust and address challenges from COVID to climate breakdown, noted Wernick, they have much to learn from one another. Despite people’s very different contexts, he said, he’d been struck by “how common some of the issues are, and the value of these kinds of conversations.” Brown agreed: “It’s a real benefit to have a network like this: to be able to reach out; to better understand what’s been tried in other places”, he commented.

Yip too had noticed “how strikingly common are the challenges that we all face” – and responding well to these challenges, he argued, would bring benefits far beyond the immediate problem. The Summit’s first session had covered risk management, he noted, adding that addressing today’s complex threat landscape creates “the opportunity to build new resilience.” Its second had covered environmental sustainability: here, said Yip, the threat “gives us a burning platform to mobilise the whole of the nation,” creating “a new, green, sustainable future.” And this third session had explored “the multi-domain, multi-disciplinary character of the big challenges that we’re all up against; from that, we have the opportunity to rebuild how we organise government.”

With such policy pressures giving reforms momentum and digital technologies providing the delivery tools, said Leo, civil servants around the world can make big changes – creating governments better able to deal with both today’s problems, and those yet to come. As he concluded: “From common challenges, I think, there is huge opportunity to seize collective opportunities.”

The Digital Leaders report produced by Kevin Cunnington is available via GGF’s Digital Summit website – where you can also sign up to join our forthcoming workshops on the digital workforce (27 April 2022) and digital ID (18 May 2022).

The Global Government Summit was held online in late January; this is our fourth and final report on the event, covering the discussion on contemporary civil service leadership.  The first covered Singapore civil service head Leo Yip’s introductory remarks; the second, the discussion on how to address risks across government; and the third, the goals of improving environmental sustainability and tackling climate change.

To ensure that people can speak freely at the event, we give those quoted the right to anonymise or edit their remarks before publication. 

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About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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