Leaders’ picks: national civil service chiefs share ideas for tackling COVID-19

By on 02/12/2020 | Updated on 08/12/2020
Public employees are heroes of the pandemic. Taking on new roles and working in new ways, they have laboured tirelessly to keep people healthy, safe and financially stable. Credit: Georgia National Guard from United States. Licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

From supporting officials’ mental health to setting up a taskforce to tackle domestic violence, civil services around the world have responded to the novel coronavirus with new services and reforms. Here, national civil service leaders name the projects they’ve found most impressive

There have been over 57.8 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide and 1.3 million deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Indeed, the virus has affected almost every public servant, citizen and organisation on the planet.

But the way public services and policy makers have responded to the health and economic crisis is remarkable. Here, senior leaders from governments and international bodies reveal the most innovative projects they’ve come across during the pandemic.

Heroic response

“First, let’s recognise that public employees are heroes of the pandemic.  They have worked tirelessly to keep people healthy, safe and financially stable, under enormous uncertainties. This has required innovations to make civil services more agile and resilient. Here’s two examples.

“In Canada, the Treasury Board Secretariat re-purposed an existing staffing platform [Talent Cloud] to identify digital and tech talent within government. Volunteers were rapidly identified, their skills triaged, and re-deployed to COVID-related roles at short notice to fill crucial gaps.

“The Finnish initiative ‘Fast Expert Teams’ brought in specialists from outside the public service to join volunteer teams collaborating on highly complex challenges.” 

Jeffrey Schlagenhauf, deputy secretary-general, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

Remote working in Singapore

“When confronted with this raging, burning platform of the pandemic, we had to mount an immediate, innovative and adaptive response.

“Within a couple of weeks, we switched almost entirely to a digital, distributed and home-based operating model. Meetings moved to virtual platforms. Digital channels replaced physical counters to deliver services to the public. New work and decision processes replaced old ones that were previously carried out in person. And work carried on apace. New mindsets and skillsets were built as officers adapted to these changes.

“Even as we settle into a new normal, we must continue to innovate and adapt to better ways of working.”

Leo Yip, head of the Singapore civil service 

Safety during lockdown in New Zealand

“Our Family Violence Sexual Violence joint venture was established to enable a cross-government response to family and sexual violence.

“When COVID-19 struck, the team was well placed to mobilise community organisations to prevent an increase in family violence ­– feared during lockdown – by getting information out and ensuring that support could be accessed. One initiative was to put emergency buttons in supermarkets: the only places where individuals at risk were likely to be able to seek help.”

Hannah Cameron, deputy commissioner, strategy and policy, Public Service Commission, New Zealand

Employee wellbeing in the Slovak Republic

“The Government Office created a programme to take care of the employees who may have experienced stress, anxiety or feelings of loneliness during the pandemic, [affecting their] mental health.

“The Microsoft Forms service was used to create presentations, tests and other materials tailored to course participants. This experience confirmed that at the time of need we can train online and meet the needs of civil servants.”

Tatiana Janecková, secretary general, The Civil Service Office, Slovak Republic

Mass redeployment in Australia

“The most comprehensive project was the massive redeployment of Australian Public Service (APS) staff to where they were needed most, particularly payment service delivery. The response to the call for volunteers was overwhelming – we called it the APS2000 because literally thousands of people were redeployed. Now we’re learning from that experience and developing a Surge Reserve workforce – a large group of APS staff who are trained, ready and willing to be redeployed when and where they’re needed.

“There were also fabulous examples in other agencies. The Australian Taxation Office recruited local community leaders as Tax Help volunteers to help people with their returns and ensure vulnerable communities didn’t fall through the cracks. Services Australia employed the ‘voice of the customer’ speech analytics tool. The technology analyses language, keywords and phrasing in calls to the agency, generating rich data that is used to identify and rectify common problems.”

Stephanie Foster, deputy secretary governance, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia

Estonia turns to automation

“We quickly set up a team responsible for answering FAQs about the pandemic or decisions government and different agencies had made, and publishing them. We started to automate by introducing the chatbot and the content administration behind it. As a result, we were able to answer questions even before people asked them.”

Taimar Peterkop, secretary of state, Republic of Estonia

Agility in Malta

“The Symptoms Checker, a COVID-19 microsite launched in April 2020 for citizens to assess their risk of infection and to assist the Superintendence of Public Health to monitor and predict the spread of COVID-19 in Malta, was one such project.

“Whilst not an innovative project per se, the way the public service rose to the occasion – given the abruptness with which the pandemic hit us – can be deemed an innovation itself. Supported through digital readiness, the Maltese public service acted with agility, adapted quickly to the emerging needs, shifted to remote working, and successfully ensured the continuity of the provision of public services. Furthermore, it went into fast track mode to draw up and implement policies and regulations for the unprecedented measures required to manage the pandemic.”

Mario Cutajar, cabinet secretary and civil service head, Malta

Pooling resources in India

“The most innovative project, or collaboration, was the establishment of CARUNA: Civil Services Association Reach to Support National Disasters. This saw all the 22 civil services – from the Indian Administrative Service to the Indian Defence Estates Services – pool their personal and professional resources to supplement the government’s efforts to address COVID Mitigation.

“The union minister for personnel, who is also the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Jitendra Singh, said the initiative helped ‘government sail smoothly in times of pandemic’.”

Dr Sanjeev Chopra, director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India

A focus on local authorities in Israel

“The pandemic brought local authorities to the front of the stage, so many initiatives and innovation projects focused on them and their needs.

“One of them is National Initiative 265, by the Ministry of the Interior with Israel Digital. This aims to promote digitisation, development and exchange of knowledge within local authorities. The initiative includes a dedicated website and a closed Facebook community that provides knowledge, serves as a platform for consultation and support during digital transformation processes, and assists authorities in developing and promoting digital services to citizens. The platform has featured a record number of projects, emergency assessment plans and more.

“In addition, the Ministry of Energy, in collaboration with local authorities and the voluntary sector, led an initiative focused on the use of renewable energy in public buildings to reduce operating expenses.”

Dr Iris Nehemia, division head of strategic planning and policy, Office of the Prime Minister, Israel

E-learning in Myanmar

“Due to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s difficult to conduct in-house training with large classes. There’s a need to reskill HR to adapt to virtual platforms.

“The Union Civil Service Board (UCSB) has made a lot of preparations, such as capacity-building to conduct online training courses. This includes: adapting to the virtual learning environment; providing the necessary tools, equipment and infrastructure for e-blended learning; redesigning the curriculum and trainer/trainee manuals; adopting effective evaluation tools; making adjustments to class sizes; and encouraging individual learners to expand their self-study habits and to support the e-government system through building collaborative networks with the Association of South East Asian Nations’ PSTIs.

“In this regard, one of the most innovative civil service projects is the ‘Changing the conventional way of training programme to digital-driven learning system’. It has six main focuses: programme, trainer, teaching, mindset, infrastructure and delivery.”

H.E. U Win Thein, chairman of the Union Civil Service Board, Myanmar

Remote working in Slovenia

“At the Ministry of Public Administration, we quickly managed to ensure the same level of quality, professionalism and timeliness for urgent public services, while abiding by all the measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Remote working was widespread: some 70% of civil servants worked from home. For the majority, their work was efficient – even more so than in the office, for some.

“Agile tools were used to reallocate the workforce where there were urgent needs, to place them on furlough and to hire new employees with no public notice of vacancy.

“Digital skills of employees and leadership were emphasised with new ways of communication, video meetings, distance trainings, online language courses etcetera.”

Peter Pogačar, director general, Public Sector Directorate, Ministry of Public Administration, Slovenia

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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