Operations Insights
September 11, 2020

Pulling back the curtain on the public sector

Gianluca Cairo, Principal, Industry Advisory at Ceridian explains why the public sector can’t go back to the “old normal” of bureaucracy and outdated systems after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Table of Contents

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the public sector's lagging technological investment, but, it's also revealed a latent agility few expected. It’s been just several months since the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the emerging global health crisis a pandemic, and the UK Government’s response has been wide-ranging. From the swift introduction of a furlough scheme to support businesses and the workforce, to providing PPE, equipment, testing and vaccine development, the government has tried to move quickly to keep pace with the constant change. A recent report by the Local Government Association that measured residents' level of satisfaction with local councils’ response to COVID-19 shows that 70% of respondents are satisfied with the way they have been supported so far. [1]

While the public sector has long held a reputation for being slow-moving and risk averse, the pandemic has shown that speed is possible when the stakes are high enough. But what does that mean for organisations once the crisis has abated? Even before the pandemic, the world was changing at a speed never before seen in history. The wholesale transformation of nearly every aspect of our lives to digital was well underway, and public sector agencies were already late to the party. All signs point to the current crisis as a catalyst to accelerate that transformation even further. At the same time, citizens will be looking to our governments to guide them through a period of prolonged uncertainty, right at a time when the pressure to do more with less is at its highest due to historical levels of stimulus spending along with a decrease in revenue generating activities

One thing is clear: Going back to the “old normal” is not an option.

Public sector organisations must take this opportunity to continue on this new path of agility and accelerate digital transformation to meet the needs of citizens in the post-COVID-19 era. Here are three key areas of focus for public sector leaders:

1. Improve operational efficiency through technology

As citizens’ need for public sector support and guidance grows, organisations will need to focus on how to more efficiently translate taxpayer contributions into measurable citizen outcomes. It might be tempting for leaders to shelve technology upgrades at a time when high stimulus spending is already straining budgets, however, ignoring the need for digital transformation could put public sector organisations at risk of not being able to deliver the level of service needed. It’s not about avoiding the spend for the sake of austerity; rather, it’s about ensuring the ROI on every pound spent benefits – and can be shown to benefit – citizens.

Taking a data-driven approach to workforce management will help leaders identify wasted time, money, and resource allocation. This action translates into that measurable impact on citizen outcomes because it means managers can better manage labour costs in real time, and match resources to demand for services in a more efficient way. It will also help managers understand the costs associated with overtime and absenteeism, as well as the causes, so that these issues can be corrected. These insights will help organisations refocus the workforce onto higher-value outcomes for citizens, instead of lower-value tasks – and report on those benefits more transparently.

The right technology can also help to automate manual processes to reduce the administrative burden on managers, so they can focus on developing and engaging the workforce to improve service delivery. An added benefit to automation is that it can help organisations better manage compliance with union rules and the complex, ever-changing regulations that govern the workforce. This will reduce the burden on HR teams, allowing them to focus on recruitment, retention, and reskilling.

And self-serve technology tools can help empower workers both during and after the pandemic, while allowing managers to skip tasks like processing employee requests and focus on higher-value strategic work. Self-serve tools for ongoing training personalised to employees’ roles can also result in improved security practices to help safeguard sensitive personal data and classified information.

2. Expand business continuity planning for the long haul

The UK public sector has a blend of front-line workers and back-office employees, which has posed a variety of challenges to business continuity during this crisis. On the one hand, organisations had to transition back-office staff to remote work when they were ill-prepared to do so. There were challenges due to not having the right technology for employees to securely access systems remotely, as well as some lacking the appropriate space at home to work. On the other hand, front line workers were facing an increased risk of illness or being quarantined, making it difficult to keep track of employees’ health and wellbeing, or manage staffing levels. 

Technology can support business continuity in several ways. It creates an opportunity for better knowledge management – digitally capturing information so employees can more easily cover each other’s roles. Not only is there a risk of employees getting sick or being quarantined right now, the so-called “Silver Tsunami” of retiring baby boomers was already creating a labour shortage in the sector and will continue to do so. Organisations will need to be able to rapidly transition knowledge to the next generation of workers to ensure business continuity long after the pandemic ends.

The public sector will also need to consider how to ensure business continuity for future disruptions, as well as how the nature of work may change permanently. Long lasting effects of the pandemic include the possibility of a more geographically distributed workforce, with more people working from home. [2] This will change how public sector leaders manage teams, and technology will play a key role in creating a unified culture and ensuring efficiency.

3. Hire and retain a next-gen workforce

The pandemic has accelerated the need to usher in the next generation of the workforce. The skills that have the most value were already changing prior to the crisis, and there is a new emphasis on adaptability and resilience, which the pandemic has made even more important. [3] At the same time, the increased role of technology in society, along with the move toward automating lower-value tasks for operational efficiency, is increasing the level of technology skill needed in the public sector workforce.

While the public sector has struggled to attract younger talent due to high competition from the private sector prior to the pandemic, there is an opportunity to change the younger generations' perceptions of being a civil servant - right now. Organisations can take this opportunity to embrace technology, transition to more flexible working models (location, hours), and inspire younger workers to serve their communities. Building a truly tech-driven workplace would give employees the best of all worlds – job security, good salaries, deep value, and flexibility – greatly strengthening its appeal and ability to compete for top talent.

Introducing a learning platform can also help improve attraction and engagement for millennial and Gen Z employees who want to keep their skills sharp and grow their careers. Learning platforms allow for a personalised learning experience that suits a multi-generational workforce, and can be tied to performance, succession planning, and organisational goals to drive career development and help close the skills gap.

A new era for public sector

I have spent most of my career in the public sector, and believe this pandemic has underscored how essential it is in the eyes of all citizens. After all, it is the public sector that has kept our nation working during this unprecedented time. However, more disruption awaits on the horizon, and uncertainty has become our new normal. As such, the importance of modernising the public sector to enable faster crisis response delivered by the best talent available – whether in an office or from their homes – has never been more apparent.


[1] Resident satisfaction with councils’ response to COVID-19: May 2020, Local Government Association

[2] An emerging legacy - How COVID-19 could change the public sector, Deloitte Perspectives 2020

[3] Skills Shortages in the UK Economy July 2018, Edge Bulletin 2

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