Governments are redefining their approach to productivity

By on 26/05/2024 | Updated on 04/06/2024
Dr Folosade Omolara Yemi-Esan, head of the civil service of Nigeria

At the Global Government Summit, civil service leaders identified the keys to driving up government productivity: staff wellbeing, smart incentives, digital technologies – and easing out those who resolutely refuse to get with the programme. Matt Ross reports.

“Traditionally, productivity has been considered to be the outcome of work done per unit of input. However, in contemporary times we don’t want to see productivity that way,” said Dr Folosade Omolara Yemi-Esan, head of the civil service of Nigeria. She argued for a subtler, more human-focused approach to productivity: “Sometimes we ignore the welfare of workers, and just concentrate on output – but we’ve seen that when you actually look after workers, then productivity increases.”

By focusing on “self-care, work-life balance, and using time wisely” in the workforce, Yemi-Esan argued, civil services can both improve their ability to serve the public, and improve staff recruitment, morale and retention. This agenda was given a boost by the shift to remote and flexible working during the pandemic – and this has become an important aspect of staff wellbeing. Creating a more engaged, flexible workforce, she added, also helps to boost innovation and generates further gains in productivity.

Speaking in the session on civil service productivity at the 2024 Global Government Summit – which brought top civil service leaders from 16 countries to Singapore for frank, free-flowing discussions on the challenges they face in common – Yemi-Esan explained how Nigeria’s civil service is encouraging officials to boost output and innovation. “We’re working seriously on the value proposition and incentivising performance,” she said. In partnership with the private sector, government offers high-performing individuals benefits such as endowments, plots of land and low-interest mortgages. “Once you’re able to reward good performance, then everybody in the ministry wants to be the star,” she commented.

Payment by results

Alex Chisholm, former chief operating officer of the UK Civil Service

These performance rewards interested Alex Chisholm, who at the time of the event was chief operating officer of the UK Civil Service and has since stepped down. He noted that in the UK “we try to incentivise people around the mission of public service, but what we haven’t done very much is paying people more for their initiative, their productivity. And the more I think about it, the more I think that is an error on our part.”

“Everywhere else in the economy, people are incentivised to be more productive, to come forward with ideas. But our pay doesn’t vary much according to performance,” he added. “That could be a factor in our low productivity.” It has since been announced that the UK government will introduce a performance-related pay regime for senior civil servants this summer.

Yemi-Esan agreed: “The ‘one pay’ system encourages redundancy, because if you’re not doing anything you’re still getting paid,” she said. “And there are lots of people that are doing very well, and getting paid the same amount. I think there should be a shift to pay based on results.”

Another crucial route to improved productivity, said Yemi-Esan, lies through digital and data technologies. She highlighted in particular Nigeria’s ‘One Government’ initiative, which aims “to put all government services on one platform, and to ensure that there’s collaboration between ministries”.

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Efficiency through technology

Leo Yip, the head of Singapore’s Civil Service

Here, Nigeria is following a well-trodden path pioneered by the host country, Singapore. Traditionally “ministries and departments are organised by functions, backed by legislative powers and reporting to individual ministers”, commented Leo Yip, the head of Singapore’s Civil Service. “But if you have the opportunity to redesign how we’re organised from a much more citizen-centric lens, you probably do it completely differently.”

Singapore has been rebuilding services to put citizens’ life events at their heart, rather than departmental structures – “and when you redesign all the related services around moments of life, you can extract efficiency gains”, said Yip. “That means better productivity, but also better service delivery effectiveness.”

Alongside this service reform agenda, said Yemi-Esan, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies offer huge potential to improve productivity. “This is an area we should encourage all public servants to look at,” she said. “We should encourage them to think outside the box, and we must encourage a culture of innovation and problem-solving. AI will be, I think, the best way to go if we want to achieve this.”

Adding artificial to human intelligence

Yemi-Esan’s comment rang true with a participant representing event knowledge partner EY, who shared a series of examples of AI boosting productivity in government. In personnel development, for example, AI systems are being developed that “learn how you learn, and adapt the training” to suit each individual’s learning style. AI can also provide interfaces to ease interactions with administrative systems – allowing staff to undertake processes such as requesting leave without having to wrestle with an unfamiliar IT system.

Such innovations can be introduced quickly and cost-effectively, EY’s spokesperson added, much improving the operation and efficiency of underlying systems. There’s been a “culture shift in governments since COVID”, they commented, with leaders prioritising small-scale, pragmatic technology-led improvements that can be delivered in six to nine months: “Get it in, get it working, and aim for a one- to two-year payback.”

Such smaller digital initiatives involve less risk and change than previous reform programmes, such as the shared services projects attempted – with very limited success – by governments around the world. Indeed, EY’s representative argued that by improving user interfaces and streamlining transactions, AI technologies can enable these struggling schemes to finally fulfil their potential.

“We are now at the turning point of delivery of shared services and other services in government, leveraging AI and generative AI,” they said. And as AI makes its mark in shared services, the technology can also help in retraining staff freed up to work in other areas. “This isn’t about head count reduction; it’s about service delivery improvement,” EY’s commentator added. “How can we use these people? Departments are looking to shift people to customer service, to planning or to information management.”

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Stop carrying the unproductive

Former UK cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell

However, former UK cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell argued that reform programmes can also involve reducing head counts – particularly if civil services shed their worst performing and least productive people. When the UK’s Coalition government came to office in 2010, he recalled, “they wanted lots of cuts. We did a voluntary redundancy programme, we got a reasonable take-up, and we made sure that the ones we accepted were the worst performers.”

The process “wasn’t particularly popular”, he added. “But it got productivity up quite a lot, quite quickly.” Yemi-Esan was on the same page. During the pandemic “about a third of the public officers were at home, and the skeleton services were actually working more efficiently”, she recalled. “The consensus was that if a third of people were at home and yet the work was going efficiently, then we had to look at productivity and staff numbers.”

There are major obstacles to widespread redundancy programmes: Yemi-Esan cited government’s worries about the unemployment rate and the cost of redundancy packages. Yet in the view of Leo Yip, civil services must get better at shedding those staff who prove unable to adjust to the changing requirements of life in the public sector. “We can’t continue with the approach we’ve been taking for decades, which is one of stability, continuity of employment, and keeping people who are no longer performing and not able to make the transitions as their roles and the way they work is reorganised,” he said. “We are in the process of addressing what that means in concrete terms.”

Incentivising innovation

To adapt their capabilities to today’s challenges and opportunities, civil services must invest heavily in retraining staff – giving them every chance to adapt to a new world of work. “We are reskilling and retooling people,” said Yemi-Esan. “And we have a leadership enhancement development programme, where we gradually train and mentor civil servants so that they can serve as consultants.”

These training programmes are themselves built around a “culture change management process” designed to shift staff expectations and ambitions, she added. Civil servants must “understand that the culture of the service is changing, from a bureaucratic nature to a more agile and digital service”.

“We should be preparing for the explosion of technology, and narrowing skills gaps so that public servants can adapt to any situation,” Yemi-Esan concluded. “Optimal productivity can only be attained when we’re flexible, creative and adaptable. The conventional approach to productivity, which focuses on efficiency and cost-cutting, is no longer sufficient in today’s world. Instead, the public service must be willing to think outside the box; we must be open to change; and we must experiment with new ways of doing things.”

The Global Government Summit is a private event, providing a safe space at which civil service leaders can debate the challenges they face in common. We publish these reports to share some of their thinking with our readers. To ensure that participants feel able to speak freely at the Summit, we check before publication that they are content to be quoted. 

The 2024 Summit will be covered in four reports, covering the four daytime sessions:

Addressing today’s crises – and tomorrow’s catastrophes
The opportunities and risks of AI
– A contemporary approach to productivity
A truly diverse civil service leadership

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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