Five key debates: the best webinars of 2020

By on 29/12/2020
When the world moved to home-working, so did GGF – bringing together civil service leaders from around the world for a series of webinars on aspects of the pandemic. Here, we pick five panel discussions that could help you realise your goals in 2021

When the world moved to home-working, so did GGF – bringing together civil service leaders from around the world for a series of webinars on aspects of the pandemic. Here, we pick five panel discussions that could help you realise your goals in 2021

Making a success of remote working

Among much, much else, 2020 will be known as the year when remote working really kicked off – enabling public servants to respond to the pandemic without risking infection. But while many valued the end of long commutes and ‘presenteeism’ culture, the wholesale shift to working from home created a new set of challenges for both organisations and employees.

A month into the UK’s first lockdown, during late April, Global Government Forum teamed up with assistive technologies provider Microlink to provide civil servants with advice on how to work successfully from home. In answer to a viewer’s question on how managers can square their organisational goals with the need to respect people’s domestic situations, for example, panellist Dr Nancy Doyle – an occupational psychologist and neurodiversity consultant – emphasised the importance of providing support to help staff get to grips with their new circumstances.

“When you’re not seeing the results that you want to see and you’re not getting the contact that you need to feel reassured that that person is okay, approach them with a mindset of curiosity,” she said. “Explore what might be happening cognitively in terms of their ability to concentrate and to plan; and emotionally, in terms of any extra stress or anxiety they might be feeling. Then approach it practically – are the tools they need available to them?” Those tools must be right for both the job and the person, added Microlink chief executive Nasser Siabi: home workstations must, for example, be set up to avoid the risk of back or neck pain. “If you get the right equipment, and it doesn’t cost much for an organisation – several hundred dollars at most – you can reduce absenteeism by 80%,” he commented

Along with the report on this webinar, GGF also published a feature on governments’ work to support home-workers, and an advice piece on how to work effectively from home. We also ran further webinars on managing a distributed workforce; teamwork and remote working; and IT security in a distributed workforce. The knowledge partner was Microlink.

The levers to ‘Level Up’

Illustration by Katy Smith

Tackling the COVID-19 crisis took up a huge amount of the UK government’s energy this year; so too did Brexit. However, the government was still keen to promote prime minister Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, which seeks to close the prosperity gap between London and the South-East and the rest of the country.  

This was the subject of a GGF webinar in July, at which panellists warned that the government was in danger of repeating past mistakes by centralising and controlling key policy areas. Philip Rycroft – the former Department for Exiting the European Union (DEXEU) permanent secretary who, as head of the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group, also oversaw constitutional and devolution issues – argued that ever since Margaret Thatcher abolished the metropolitan counties in 1986, central government has dominated local actors. 

“All the signs are that [this administration] will seek to manage it, as previous governments have, through policies driven from the centre – where the various local actors become largely delivery vehicles for central initiatives,” said Rycroft. “The handling of COVID – and the engagement, or lack of engagement, of metro mayors, the mayor of London, and to some extent also devolved governments – at critical stages of the COVID planning process is perhaps indicative of the centralising instincts of this government.”

This webinar was the first session in a four-part online conference on ‘Levelling Up in the era of COVID-19’. The second session explored the government’s goal of redistributing civil servants away from London and the South-East; the third session considered the role of infrastructure in levelling up; and in the fourth session, panellists discussed the role and importance of city-regional administrations. We have also published a full interview with Philip Rycroft this year. The knowledge partner was the Centre for Public Impact.

Using data to tackle COVID-19

Illustration by Katy Smith

Many governments have found fast-growing data capabilities essential to their pandemic response – tracking the virus’s spread, understanding its impacts, and monitoring the effect of new services and stimulus spending. However, as two GGF webinars on the topic discovered, substantive challenges have to be overcome if interventions are to be effective. For many countries – liberal democracies in particular – maintaining public confidence is perhaps the most important. People will only make use of contact-tracing apps, for instance, if they trust authorities and companies to handle their data responsibly.  

Speaking in the first webinar, Johannes Jütting, executive head of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century – a global initiative hosted by the OECD – said that this issue is becoming ever-more important. “We see more and more data actors like private companies engaging; we see civil society organisations engaging; we see academia engaging,” he said. “There needs to be some trusted entity that can steer these different actors to enable and to produce a trust that is necessary for the citizens to see the benefit. And this entity, in our view, is national statistical offices.” 

Collating data in a consistent fashion is also vital – and something that can be challenging for civil servants used to working along strict departmental lines. This was an issue raised by Francisco Rodriguez, head of the Digital Government Division in the Ministry of the Presidency in Chile, in the second webinar. Integrating systems to allow the government to tap into the power of big data, he said, involves both changes to technology networks and “the mindset of public servants”.  

The first of these webinars featured speakers including Jeni Tennison, vice president of the UK’s Open Data Institute, and Enrique Zapata, lead for data intelligence and new technologies at the CAF Development Bank of Latin America. At the second, panellists included Ronald Jansen, chief of the Data Innovation and Capacity Branch of the UN’s Statistics Division, and Quek Su Lynn, director at Singapore’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office. The knowledge partners were Google Cloud and Mastercard.

Pursuing a green recovery

Illustration by Katy Smith

When the pandemic hit and governments put their economies into suspended animation, they had a unique opportunity to reshape their economies around sustainable sectors – creating the seeds of a green recovery. Some seized the moment: Dr Steffen Jenner, an advisor in the energy and climate policy unit of the German Federal Ministry of Finance, said his government’s €130bn response comprised both a short-term stabilisation package to prevent economic collapse, and a “future package” to back a longer-term recovery and decarbonisation. 

However, the webinar also made it clear that, for the most part, the countries producing green stimulus packages are the ‘usual suspects’: those that were already taking substantial steps to tackle climate change. “Jurisdictions that already had strong commitments to a transition to clean energy are now backing that shift with investment and recovery packages, while those that already heavily subsidise the production and consumption of fossil fuels have largely added support to those,” said Sir Suma Chakrabarti, chair of the Overseas Development Institute. “The pandemic hasn’t changed behaviour markedly across the piece at all.” 

Our full report on this webinar – at which Deloitte was the knowledge partner – is available on our website. We have also published a full interview with Sir Suma Chakrabarti this year.

Reshaping health and care services 

Service transformation: in Birmingham, social enterprise Badger Group doubled its clinical workforce to operate a drive-through care facility for patients with COVID symptoms. Credit: Badger Group

The crisis has put huge pressure on health and social care systems around the world – and public servants have responded by rapidly transforming services to protect citizens and staff. As a GGF webinar held in December found, many of these positive changes will persist beyond the pandemic.

Iain O’Neil, director of digital transformation at NHSX – the UK Department of Health & Social Care’s (DHSC’s) digital technology agency – highlighted the extent to which services had gone virtual. “At the start of the year, somewhere around 3% of doctors could do video consultations, and now 99% of them have the capability,” he said.  

Heidi Steinecker, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, explained that California was the first US state to ask all its healthcare facilities to provide regular data updates – enabling it to track the virus’s progression through local populations and – through the application of predictive analytics technologies – to forecast which areas might come under pressure next. Forewarned, state leaders could then move resources such as healthcare staff and PPE supplies to deal with emerging hotspots, she explained. 

But Jon Restell, chief executive of health and care leaders’ union Managers in Partnership, urged national leaders to ensure that organisations can fund and protect the roles required to drive change. Otherwise, he warned, maintaining progress “in a positive direction is going to be really difficult to achieve, because people’s focus is very likely to be on survival rather than transformation.”

Read the full report on our webinar, which was supported by knowledge partner PA Consulting.

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