From AI fears to public service strikes on pay: Global Government Forum’s top news stories of 2023

By on 26/12/2023 | Updated on 22/12/2023
Cartoon in which a worker sits at their desk while their computer thinks using AI software

After another busy year for public servants, these are some of GGF’s top news stories from the last 12 months

This year was one where great expectations and anxieties around artificial intelligence (AI) dominated conversations within and across governments. New data and fresh speculation about AI’s potential to transform public services prompted nations to begin to ask tough questions about the security of jobs, state IT infrastructure, and national defence.

For public servants, 2023 was also a year in which debates around the future of work rumbled on, and disputes over pay intensified. As inflation and the cost-of-living crisis continued in many countries, public service unions announced strikes that would culminate in some successful pay negotiations.

Elsewhere, governments’ digital identity schemes gathered pace meanwhile, with some seeking to ease citizens’ doubts and misgivings.

Here are some of Global Government Forum’s most popular stories from the last 12 months, on the topics above and more, with links to the full stories at the end of each section.

Governments seek to tackle digital identity fears as new laws progress 

The UK government published an article in May busting various myths, or “misconceptions”, around its plan to develop digital ID and online services.

In an online fact page, the Cabinet Office said that a consultation on draft legislation to support identity checks had been influenced by “commentaries against implementing compulsory citizen digital identity in principle and data-sharing to support it”.

It said that it would be “incorrect” to interpret the proposed law change as meaning that digital ID would be compulsory, stressing that it had “no plans to introduce mandatory digital identity.”

It also rejected the claim that the proposed legislation would lead to “bulk data-sharing” across government” without clear purpose, adding that data would only move between public sector organisations “for the purposes of identity verification”.

In the US meanwhile, legislation for the establishment of a government taskforce whose role would be to support “reliable interoperable digital identity verification in the public and private sectors”, passed through to the Senate. 

The bill, known as the Digital Identity Act, came in response to calls from the bipartisan Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity for federal agencies to act as “an authoritative source to validate identity attributes” across the digital ID market.

It said that the inadequacy of current digital identity solutions “degrade[d] security and privacy for all people in the United States”, and that next generation solutions were needed “[to] improve security, privacy, equity, and accessibility”.

A month before this, a draft US White House order stated that the US federal government’s Login .gov digital identity could be expanded nationally. According to the draft, federal government agencies under a nationwide system would be able to offer private sector digital ID options, as the Department of Veterans Affairs already does alongside Login .gov.

Read more
UK government responds to digital ID ‘misconceptions’
US digital identity bill passes through to Senate
Digital ID: US government poised for national rollout, while Australia finds its ‘North Star’ to harmonise standards

Fresh perspectives emerge around the future of work

Also in 2023, many governments around the world continued to develop their flexible and remote working policies.

In the coronavirus pandemic, many government officials moved to working remotely, and post-pandemic, many governments are developing flexible working policies.

Some ministers have called for public servants to spend more time in the office, but many officials are keen to maintain flexible working policies.

In April, the Biden administration in the US began rolling back its telework policy. In a memo to agency heads, Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said that “meaningful in-person work” had been given renewed priority around existing “flexible operational policies”. Agencies were also asked to monitor “organisational health and organisational performance” as part of the shift in work format.

Despite this, the OMB stressed that flexibilities around work remained key to talent acquisition and retention. Jason Miller, OMB’s deputy director for management, wrote in White House blog that agencies had to judge carefully “what is working well, what is not, and what can be improved”.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach; however, it is important to establish overarching goals and benchmarks for consistency,” he said.

However, a survey found that 45% of US government employees would consider looking for a new job if their agency reduced remote and hybrid working, a survey published in May revealed.

The survey drew on a study of more than 500 federal, state, and local government workers. It found that 59% of those who had remote or hybrid working arrangements said their job satisfaction would drop if their employer mandated a return to in-person work. Meanwhile, 44% said their productivity would sink if such a requirement were introduced.

The results of the survey also found respondents agreeing that they valued in-person work, depending on the task at hand.

Though they said that remote work promoted deep thinking (64%), focus (58%) and better conditions for research (61%), 85% of respondents said that the workplace fostered both better team building and integration management for new team members. Many also said that the workplace provided better conditions for training (72%); kicking off a new project (71%); and getting a project back on track (70%).

In June, the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) rejected a bid by federal government employees and unions to convert to a four-day work week after their bid entered workforce negotiations.

The proposal was for public servants to be allowed to work just under 9.5 hours per day over four days, rather than the current 7.5 hours a day over five, therefore incurring no loss of pay. The proposed switch was framed as making government work more attractive to new talent and increasing government’s focus on productivity.

But the commission’s chief negotiator, Peter Riordan, said that it was “unable to support this initiative or a trial in Australian Public Service (APS) agencies”, citing “a range of [existing] flexibilities” he said already supported APS employees’ desire to achieve “an appropriate work-life balance”.

However, this year the APSC also published a set of flexible working principles aimed to make the public service “a model employer”. Australian public servants will be able to request an unlimited number of remote workdays, but that agencies would be required to think about “what arrangements [were] appropriate”.

Read more
Nearly half of US government workers ‘may quit if telework reduced’
Australia’s public service commission rejects four-day week bid
Australian Public Service: uncapped remote working on the cards

Canadian public service strike ends after prolonged battle over pay and hybrid work

Remote working rules were also a factor in a two-week long strike involving 120,000 Canadian public servants in May, which ended with a deal on pay and workplace conditions struck between the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) union.

The agreement between the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and employee representatives represented what the government called a “fair, competitive agreements for employees that are reasonable for Canadians”.

The deal included a 12.6% pay rise compounded over the life of the agreement from 2021-2024. Officials also won a single C$2,500 (US$1,862) lump sum payment worth an extra 3.7% of salary for the average PSAC member in Treasury Board bargaining units.

The PSAC said that both its overwhelming strike mandate and strike action meant that it had made “important gains” and provisions for “safer and more inclusive workplaces”, including “new and improved remote work language” that will offer officials additional protection when subject to arbitrary decisions about remote work.

This came after a January mandate for public servants to work from the office at least two to three days a week. This was expected to grow office presence to between 40% to 60% of officials’ regular schedules.

Then, in May this year, Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau announced that Canada’s most senior public servant, Janice Charette, would retire as clerk of the privy council and be replaced by John Hannaford, the then deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada. Hannaford was appointed to the role on 1 June.

Read more
Canadian public service strike ends as deal reached over pay
Trudeau names new public service chief as Janice Charette retires
Canadian government readies return-to-office mandate
Canadian public servants could face discipline for shirking return-to-office rules

US government extends wellbeing support for federal officials

On 24 May, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) published guidance on a standardised approach to employee wellness programmes across the federal government.

The guidance followed President Joe Biden’s Management Agenda from 2021, which urged agencies to promote “wellbeing and [supporting] initiatives that extend beyond the workplace”.

OPM’s associate director of employee services, Veronica E. Hinton, wrote in a memo that the goal of the guidance was to support agencies in “utilising available tools and resources so that employee wellness is efficiently fostered, uplifted, and consistently prioritised across government”.

Mental health counselling; crisis intervention; substance use treatment; financial and legal services; access to dependent care; life-stage planning; workplace conflict resolution; and cultural competency services, were all included in the recommendations of the guidance.

In August, the US federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs said it that it had agreed to offer compensation to ex-government employees who were wrongly sacked under 2017 legislation intended to make it easier to remove officials.

The sackings were made under what was known as the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. However, these decisions were found to have skipped over required performance improvement plans, as per departments’ collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Those who were deemed to have been unfairly sacked were either offered their jobs back, or compensation in lieu of being reinstated.

The department no longer uses the authority granted under section 714 of the 2017 law, which granted the secretary power to “remove, demote, or suspend a covered individual who is an employee of the department if the secretary determines the performance or misconduct of the covered individual warrants such removal, demotion, or suspension”.

In September, Biden confirmed a 5.2% average pay increase for federal agents, starting from January 2024. In a letter to the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, and the country’s vice president and president of the Senate, Kamala Harris, Biden said that the increase was necessary to sustaining a “well-qualified federal workforce on behalf of the American people, keeping pace with prior wage growth in the labour market”.

The pay bump comprised an across-the-board 4.7% base pay increase, plus a locality-based pay increase averaging 0.5%, resulting in an overall average increase of 5.2%.

Read more
US standardises federal employee wellness programmes
CIA chief sets out era of US-China ‘strategic competition’ in AI and beyond
Biden confirms 5.2% pay raise for US federal government officials
Biden administration rolls back telework for feds
US feds wrongly fired under Trump legislation to get compensation

Global Government Women’s Network launches

This year, Global Government Forum launched the Global Government Women’s Network: a free, global community of women who can advise and support each other as they navigate their careers, underpinned by exclusive news, opinion, analysis and events.

In a sign of the efforts governments are making to create a more equitable workforce, Australia’s Department of Defence announced in June that it would seek to double the number of women hired through recruitment schemes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The 50% target applied to the STEM Cadetship Program, and the research and innovation pathway of the Defence Graduate Program, where women’s participation rate currently stands at 25%. The federal government said that setting itself the target would “help secure a workforce that better represents the diverse talent of our nation”.

The department also said it would aim to fill half the roles on its Navigate Program with women.

The programme ran a success pilot in 2022 and is expected to run indefinitely. It took more than 800 applications and hired 69 participants, of which 43% were women, beating its initial target by 3%.

The federal government’s chief defence scientist Professor Tanya Monro said meanwhile that the department’s target meant that it could “draw more fully on our nation’s talent pool”.

Read more
Global Government Women’s Network
Australia’s defence department’s 50% target for women in STEM

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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