Protecting income mobility: Global Government Summit 2018, part 6

By on 29/05/2018
Mikhail Pryadilnikov, deputy director, Analytic Center for the Russian Government.

For a decade, incomes have stagnated across the developed world – and a new wave of economic and technological changes present a further challenge to the contract between citizens and state. At the 2018 Global Government Summit, top officials discussed how governments can help protect social mobility and median incomes. Matt Ross reports

According to Canadian journalist John Ibbitson, “intergenerational income mobility is about so much more than your kids doing a little better than you,” said Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, Secretary of the Treasury Board of Canada. “The expectation that each generation will become more prosperous than the one that came before helps us to erode class barriers, and gives us hope and determination. The future has to be better than the past.”

Speaking to delegates at the February 2018 Global Government Summit – which brought top civil servants from 11 countries to Singapore for informal discussions on some of their biggest common challenges – Baltacıoğlu was leading a session on income mobility. And whilst the emphasis here often falls on the opportunities for children born into poor families to earn good salaries as adults, she pointed out that income mobility isn’t a one-way process. Countries may aim to increase the average household income over time, she noted, but equality of opportunity demands a merit-based society in which the poor-performing children of wealthy parents can slip down the income scale as easily as the talented offspring of poor families climb up it.

On income mobility, Baltacıoğlu noted, Canada has a good track record: amongst OECD nations its earnings mobility is similar to those of Australia and the Scandinavian countries, with the UK, Italy, the US and France sitting at the foot of the table. So Canadians born into families in the bottom fifth of the income scale are twice as likely as their British and American peers to earn at least a middle-class income during their lifetime.

Investing in people

This level of social mobility, Baltacıoğlu argued, is rooted in Canada’s investments in education and its welfare state. “Close to 90% of Canadians have high school degrees; half of those have university degrees or diplomas,” she explained. “We have employment insurance to catch people who lose their jobs; we have parental benefits. Americans call us socialists, but we wear that with pride: we’ve worked to foster social mobility for many years.”

Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, secretary of the treasury board of Canada

But her picture of Canada was not panglossian: she pointed to persistently higher rates of poverty amongst indigenous people, those with disabilities or living in rural areas, and immigrants from visible ethnic minorities. “We’re struggling to figure out why certain groups fare worse than others and why, when we’ve invested a lot with good intentions, we still can’t make this change,” she said.

In part, she argued, “while these challenges may seem unique to the issue of social mobility, in fact they’re endemic to any complex policy issue such as environmental sustainability, healthcare or innovation.” Problems frequently prove intransigent, she said, “whenever the issues are horizontal and the solutions require collaboration and coordination between different government ministries or levels of government.”

Reaching all communities

John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK Civil Service, Cabinet Office, UK.

In the case of indigenous people, Baltacıoğlu added, one key problem is a deep-seated mistrust of government – meaning that public bodies struggle both to win engagement with services such as education, and to gather the data to understand the problem. But John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the UK civil service, argued that all governments struggle to engage with some segments of their population: “In the UK, young white boys in the North of England are the most likely to fall out of the system,” he noted. “We’re probably all in the same place here.”

In part, argued Paul Huijts – the Secretary-General of the Netherlands’ Ministry of General Affairs – the solutions lie in recruiting members of minority groups into the civil service, making them better equipped to understand and engage with particular communities.

Paul Huijts, secretary-general, Ministry of General Affairs, Netherlands

Canada has worked quite hard on this, responded Baltacıoğlu: “We have good indigenous recruitment into the ministry responsible for these issues, and targets for every other department; most of us are halfway or three quarters of the way there,” she said. “But retention is a real problem, so now we’re hiring indigenous students in their summer breaks and giving them mentors.” The government is also looking at some of the barriers in recruitment; it could, for example, relax the requirement that officials speak English and French in favour of an indigenous language.

Like the UK government, the Canadians have also experimented with ‘name-blind’ recruitment – deleting people’s names and universities before applications are sifted by HR staff. But amongst those applications, Baltacıoğlu recalled, “we actually ended up with smaller proportions of women and visible minorities. Because we’re always cognizant of making sure we’re providing equal opportunities, we often move them to the interview stage.”

The challenges of economic change

Whatever civil servants do to increase their workforces’ diversity or reach out to socially-excluded groups, though, their countries face big technological and economic changes that pose much wider challenges to social mobility. The rise in temporary employment and the ‘gig economy’ is one, said Baltacıoğlu – and its effects are greatest on women and young people.

Andrew Kibblewhite, chief executive, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand.

The other is what Andrew Kibblewhite, Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, called the “tsunami” of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation. These innovations look likely to drive out many professional as well as skilled manual jobs, whilst further strengthening those in control of businesses and digital technologies.

Klen Jäärats, director for European Union Affairs of the Government Office, Estonia.

This challenge, said Klen Jäärats – the Director for European Union Affairs in Estonia’s Government Office – increases the need for governments to provide high-quality education for all their citizens. And as the pace of technological change continues to increase, “I suppose we need to go back to university three times in our lifetimes; that probably means changing our social systems.”

Rolling retraining

Leo Yip, head of civil service, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore

Singapore, said its Head of Civil Service Leo Yip, is working to change universities’ roles “so that they see their focus not just as preparing young people to enter the labour market, but also to retrain people already in the market. That shift is happening right now.”

Meanwhile, he added, the government has launched a ‘SkillsFuture’ programme to get “everyone in the workforce back into skills training on a sustained basis. But this is just the start of a long journey.”

This need to develop a workforce able to constantly adopt new skills and change career paths presents a particular challenge for schools, pointed out Kibblewhite. “Fifty percent of the children now entering school will end up doing jobs that don’t exist today,” he suggested. “It’s difficult to train people at senior school and university for employment roles that haven’t yet emerged.” Even businesses have similar problems, responded Yip: “Many companies can’t envisage how the work they carry out today will be delivered in five years,” he said. “So it’s almost impossible to ask them to develop a skills framework for the next five years.”

From high-tech to high-touch

Nadine Smith, global director of marketing and communications, Centre for Public Impact.

It is, though, possible to draw some broad conclusions about the characteristics that will make people marketable in tomorrow’s jobs markets. Beyond the obvious digital capabilities, said Yip, “I think the focus will be on ‘high-touch’ skills, because automation will remove the drudgery from many jobs. There are skills that only humans have – creative skills, personal services.” Much of the work performed today even by highly-qualified professionals such as lawyers and accountants is likely to disappear; but the interpersonal and relationships-based aspects of their jobs, and the need to make fine judgements on the basis of uncertain data, cannot easily be passed to digital tech.

Take nursing, said one participant: “Why don’t we get nurses to be much more interpersonal, and let the machines worry about taking observations? People are empathetic, machines are not; and I don’t see this changing any time soon.”

“We have to imagine a future where we humans work alongside AI, and make the best use of one another,” added Nadine Smith, Global Director of Marketing and Communications at the Centre for Public Impact. “We have to show how they can be complimentary, and reinforce each other’s strengths.”

Valuing people

These changes might even help societies and economies to reward the interpersonal qualities that have traditionally lost out to technical and financial skills, suggested Manzoni. “I suspect that we’ve fallen into the trap of undervaluing empathy and human interaction,” he commented. “There’s an opportunity here somewhere to shift rent towards our nurses, our teachers, our prison officers – we need to value these professionals properly.”

To begin to address these big, structural challenges, said Baltacıoğlu, “we need to challenge our workforce; we need to challenge our culture; we need to challenge our processes.”

“We can never stop trying to be an excellent public service,” she concluded. “Because if we fail, the country fails with us.”

Last words

As the event drew to a close, Global Government Forum director Kevin Sorkin asked the delegates which of the discussions and ideas they’d found most interesting: “What are you going to do differently when you go back into the office on Monday?” Among their answers, two key themes emerged.

First, the civil servants had been struck by the implications of their discussion on the power and potential of artificial intelligence technologies – both in their benefits for governments, and in the challenges they pose for policymakers, service delivery professionals and regulators. “I’m going to check this notion of government being left behind, and work out how we engage with this,” commented the UK’s John Manzoni.

Second, the officials had discovered both common ground in the need to foster better cross-departmental collaboration, and a huge variety in the ways that different countries are addressing that task. “I liked the discussion on cross-agency goals and where ministries meet,” commented Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Deputy Director of the Analytic Center for the Russian Government. “Everybody’s doing it in a different way, and I think we’ll try to integrate some of those ideas and put them into practice.”

“The challenge is how we get the civil service to address all these disruptions and challenges at the system level – because it’s no longer possible to deal with these profound changes at the single domain level,” summarised Leo Yip of Singapore. Civil services need to develop “strategic coherence”, with all their staff –particularly senior leaders – “thinking and operating with a system perspective.”

As Sorkin wrapped up, thanking the civil servants for “following the first rule of Global Government Summit club: be frank with each other,” Yip highlighted the event’s value for delegates. “We meet once a year, but we can continue to share perspectives and interact” between Summits, he said. “We’ve heard so many rich perspectives in the last 24 hours; so many new ways to approach particular challenges.”

Meanwhile, Yip said, the delegates will return to their home countries armed with new ideas, learning and contacts. For him, he added, one key task is to mobilise his workforce with a clear vision of the future – harnessing civil servants’ sense of public service and their common identity to build a more effective civil service, and one better equipped for the coming challenges. “To galvanise people working under constant public pressure, we must explain that there’s a better future that we must create together; one that requires us to rise above the daily fray and create a better system,” he concluded. “That is key to the leadership that we need to exercise.”

This is part 6 of our report on the 2018 Global Government Summit. Part 1 covered an analysis of the challenges facing governments by Singapore civil service chief Leo Yip, plus UK civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni’s explanation of Britain’s reform journey. Part 2 focused on New Zealand’s civil service reform journey, with Andrew Kibblewhite – head of the country’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In part 3, two top Singapore officials set out their country’s public sector reforms. In part 4, BCG experts and top officials discussed the opportunities and risks around artificial intelligence. And in part 5, the Centre for Public Impact led a debate on how to re-engage with increasingly disillusioned populations.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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