How to embed the agility and pace seen during the pandemic response in governments

By on 03/03/2021 | Updated on 19/04/2021
The silver linings around the dark clouds of the pandemic are improved government agility and pace. Now the task is to maintain it. Credit: Jeff Griffith/Unsplash

At a recent webinar, senior civil servants from the UK, Canada and Finland discussed where operational cultures could change after the pandemic, and where there could be a reversion to old thinking

Around the world, civil servants are sharing stories of against-the-clock IT development, unprecedented collaboration across departmental boundaries, and hastily assembled project teams launching brand new services. The silver linings around the dark clouds of the pandemic are improved government agility and pace.

Indeed, the narrative of a COVID-19 dividend for public sector administration is becoming well-established. Now, as vaccination programmes open up a path to the “new normal”, attention is turning to embedding these gains – in fields such as procurement, data sharing and partnership working – in readiness for the next set of challenges.

At a recent webinar, senior civil servants from the UK, Canada and Finland – brought together by Global Government Forum and its knowledge partner Civica – discussed where pandemic responses are likely to leave a mark on operational cultures, and where there could be a reversion to old thinking. They also considered where the rush to deliver has brought costs – with money wasted or misdirected – and how to maintain the pace of change while restoring the focus on value for money and probity in public spending.

“I really think it is beholden on us to grab the things that are of value and make sure that we’re very clear about them,” said Julie Pierce, director of openness data and digital at the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA). “In some strange way, the pandemic has been a great opportunity as an experiment. That should be a time where we look [at new ideas], and it may now be an easier sell to get messages across.”

Remote collaboration

The pandemic has accelerated shift to remote working, which has had a levelling impact within public sector organisations and increased permeability between departments. Teams have worked together and shared information across government, Pierce said. For example, she noted, when the Treasury asked for data on all the UK’s registered food businesses to offer support through the “Eat out to Help out” programme, the FSA met its request within a day.

A permanent shift towards remote and flexible working could improve staff productivity and job satisfaction, Pierce added, while reducing the need for office space. “Our people are less likely to want to come into expensive offices five days a week. That has broken, as it were, the norm. What we’re planning for is a full spectrum of how people work, how they operate, and all things are now ‘normal’,” she said.

Vesa Lipponen, chief information officer at Finland’s Ministry of Finance, also thought that the shift to remote working would leave a positive legacy – with civil servants retaining more networked, mutually-supportive ways of working. “If [your team] only has limited resources, you can do by yourself, but you do very little,” he said. “But when everybody has limited resources, you can do better if you combine your capabilities and resources. So there is a possibility that it would lead to a better way of working.”

Leaders will need to find ways to keep people working together across the system, said Raj Thuppal, chief technology officer for Shared Services Canada, which provides support services to the country’s public sector bodies. “I’m optimistic that things won’t go back to where it was before COVID,” he said. “But it requires some dedicated action from the top to ensure that the policy aspects and enterprise approaches are taken into consideration when we do things… So those discussions need to happen.”

The future is data

Use of data has been key both to providing new services in the pandemic, and to keeping the public informed. Matthew Rees, commercial hub director at the UK’s National Audit Office, pointed to a step-change in people’s expectations: “The public is now very data literate: they expect to see live data, they expect to see daily data, they expect local data.”

The FSA’s Pierce saw an opportunity to harness this to advance other agendas, including climate change. “Looking forward, how to maintain that engagement, that interest in data, that enthusiasm, but also apply it in other areas, possibly net zero – that’s what I’d love to see,” she said.

Civica’s head of business intelligence and analytics consultancy, Mark Humphries, hoped that the evidence of data’s value in government will help build the case for better data-gathering in the first place. “If we can get that right, maybe that will help improve trust in the use of data, because that’s an issue for governments and the public in lots of different countries. Appreciation of the quality of data is important, because you want to make the best possible decisions using that data.”

Later, he took the argument further, suggesting that data literacy could challenge “fake news” and “influencers” who adopt positions based on emotion rather than evidence. “People who are dodging the questions, not using the evidence or presenting misinformation have been called out. And I think that’s a really good thing. I see a ratcheting in terms of trust in data, and I’m optimistic for the future.”

He also believed that the trend towards data democratisation could also shift behaviours within civil service departments: instead of “all data being under the control of a central team of experts”, data could be more freely accessed by “the people who’ve got questions”.  

Then, he said, “rather than asking for new report and waiting six weeks to get the answer – by which time the world has moved on – anyone who needs to understand things, decision-makers, have access both to the data and the tools to get the answers they want.”

Flexible yet fair procurement

The pandemic’s impact on government procurement formed another theme of the debate. Reflecting on events – which include both success stories and serious organisational failures – the NAO’s Rees saw a conflict between theory and practice: the “level playing field” based on fair and open tendering, versus the pandemic argument of “needs must”.

Fair procurement practices are a vital cornerstone of a well-functioning society, he argued. “We all want these solid principles of transparency and fairness, even treatment of suppliers, effective markets, and good transparency on pricing. Those are the long-term investments,” he said. “We don’t want to find ourselves in this situation where public confidence suffers, public finances suffer, and accusations of unfair or priority treatment abound. It’s vital that we get ourselves back to a level keel.”

Noting a recent UK government green paper on procurement, he pointed out that future procurement challenges will interplay with Brexit, net zero goals and the social value imperative. And countries’ struggles to source crucial supplies such as PPE during the crisis have sharpened their awareness of other demands on their procurement systems: “How does government procure in a crisis, when there’s a global demand for global commodities, and a specific need for very bespoke responses? That’s another challenge for the government for future.”

Canada’s Thuppal, though, argued that procurement practices should fit around the market and goal – applying only those processes that add value. “We apply the method of procurement for everything that we buy, and I think that’s one of the challenges,” he said. “We need to be going towards an outcomes-based procurement – we can’t apply the same principles of defence procurement to IT procurement. Definitely transparency, fairness and value for money is high [but] at the same time, there is a risk of delaying things. We need to apply different methods for different problems.”

Focusing on the outcomes

As governments face the bills for all this spending, civil servants will no doubt be asked to find savings – and hopefully, the new habits of cross-government working and data-driven services will come in handy then. As Rees pointed out, the NAO is shifting its emphasis from “scoring” departments to taking a broader, cross-cutting look at spending and outcomes in the round. “This is about the positive story. This is about what works well,” he said. “How do you make things improve? How does the NAO, as a really important, influential voice of independent scrutiny, bring additional value to the table?”

In Humphries’ view, governments’ improving abilities to understand themselves and their populations through data will generate its own rewards. “One of the great things we’ve seen over the last year is more and more evidence-based decision-making – using data to answer some of the tricky questions instead of rushing straight in with gut feel,” he said. “That for me is a way of defending all the good work that has been done in terms of using data and growing data maturity, saying: ‘Okay, we need to recover some money, how can we do that intelligently? Where can we reduce wastage? Where do we get a really good return on our money?’”

During the pandemic, many civil services have built new relationships, skills and working methods that could serve them well in the times ahead. But the crisis has also exposed existing weaknesses, while opening up new ones in rushed reforms and short-circuited procurements. The challenge facing officials everywhere is to embed those gains, while restoring the probity, transparency and user focus that are essential to good public service delivery.  

The webinar ‘Maintaining the pace: embedding the gains of pandemic response’ was held on 2 February 2021, and supported by Civica. You can watch the whole event via our events page or below.

About Elaine Knutt

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