The case for a public sector able to spearhead recovery

Authors*: Marc Esteve, Mila Gascó, Rafael Jiménez Asensio, Fernando Jiménez, Víctor Lapuente, Francisco Longo, Guillem López Casasnovas, Juan Luis Manfredi, Elisa de la Nuez, Eloísa del Pino, Carles Ramió, Luz Rodríguez, Carlos Sebastián, Maite Vilalta & Manuel Villoria.

Covid-19 has highlighted the crucial importance of the public sector, and also its shortcomings. The response of personnel in the public authorities delivering essential services has been excellent, and the behaviour of the many professionals involved (healthcare workers, emergency military teams, law enforcement authorities, teachers, logistics and maintenance workers, social services, among others) has been exemplary.

But the system itself missed the mark, showing little foresight, excessive bureaucracy and a lack of flexibility that all affected the procurement of face masks, the manufacture of ventilators and the handling of aid. Data management issues revealed a shortage of qualified personnel in this field, while lawyers and employees in medium- and lower-medium-skill categories abound.

Other imbalances have arisen from the unresolved matters about cooperation between authorities that characterise Spain’s multi-level form of governance, causing dysfunctional episodes of greater or lesser importance during the state of emergency.

The unresolved matters about cooperation between authorities have caused dysfunctional episodes during the state of emergency

Many of these problems are not new. They reflect how slowly real change happens in public authorities. Furthermore, they are shortcomings caused by politicians' lack of interest in reforming public authorities, apart from rhetorical and ideological discussions between a godless right that apparently does not believe in the public sector’s ability to evolve or change, and a sanctimonious left that regards it as infallible and morally superior.

The increasing demands of society stemming from the crisis have aggravated these shortcomings. Our governments and public authorities now face a colossal challenge: one of the most difficult moments in the country’s history with never-ending budget deficits, archaic administrative structures and a disoriented body politic. The vast, internal and external resources that must be invested in recovery and in caring for the most vulnerable members of society run the risk of going astray, arriving too late, or not being used adequately if the circuits and mechanisms of our public sector are not updated. A case in point would be the effective implementation of the minimum income scheme or the management of projects financed by the European Reconstruction Fund – by a country that ranks amongst the worst in terms of the implementation of structural funds according to European Commission data.

This crisis is a new window of opportunity

The time has come to draw conclusions about recent events, take a fresh look at studies conducted years ago but systematically sidelined, and think about reforms intended to ensure a public system capable of spearheading Spain’s recovery and future. This crisis is a new window of opportunity for achieving this. The most far-reaching reforms were implemented in countries devastated by such serious crises as military defeats (Japan and Germany after WWII), economic recessions (New Zealand in the ’80s and Sweden in the ’90s) and systematic corruption (UK in the early 19th century and USA in the early 20th century).

Covid-19 vulnerable
The vast resources that must be invested in caring for the most vulnerable members of society run the risk of going astray, arriving too late, or not being used adequately (Photo: Madrid City Council/Diario de Madrid)

Thought must be given to more than the need to make adjustments. The fiscal scenario will undeniably impose certain contention, simplification and reduction measures which, while necessary and beneficial, are not enough to bring about the public sector we need. The experience of the great recession of 2008-13 has shown that adjustments without reforms only make things worse, and that adjustments with merely cosmetic or token reforms distract from problems but do not solve them.

The experience of the great recession has shown that adjustments without reforms only make things worse

To enable Spain to deal successfully with the post-Covid-19 scenario, action must be taken in four main areas: innovation and evaluation; internalisation of intelligence and outsourcing of procedures; more diverse and flexible employment; and leadership and professional management.

Transparent evaluation and innovation

These two concepts hardly ever go hand in hand in public authorities. Our public sector is better equipped to follow established guidelines than to deal with environments of change and technological disruption that make it necessary to manage innovation – and for this innovation to be transparent and subject to public scrutiny.

The crisis requires public management to be based increasingly on facts and figures

The crisis requires public management to be based increasingly on facts and figures. The massive availability of information and the acceleration of technological change can help achieve this but it is essential to facilitate the creation of hubs and laboratories of innovation in public policies, equipped with necessary autonomy, flexibility and capability to gradually apply the findings of behavioural economics, advance digital change and seize its opportunities, and develop AI apps in the design and delivery of public services.

At the same time, this innovative approach makes it necessary to focus on society’s true priorities and develop mechanisms for evaluating the impact of public policies. There must be a shift from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes, and this means creating professional evaluation organisations and endowing them with the necessary autonomy to make them reliable and trustworthy. We need public authorities that can operate in a completely upright and transparent manner, and be effectively accountable and proactively subject to public scrutiny. There is no better way to combat corruption and regain the people’s trust.

We need public authorities that can operate in a completely upright and transparent manner

Internalise intelligence, outsource procedures

Our public system suffers a chronic cognitive deficit that makes it very hard for it to anticipate changes and respond effectively to the challenges posed by the combination of a global, hyperconnected society and an unprecedented scientific and technological revolution. The existence of many low-skilled jobs and an ageing workforce aggravate this diagnosis. Current wage structures pay the lowest level of employment more than market rates and offer little incentive in terms of wages for more qualified professionals such as doctors, scientists and experts in cutting-edge technologies.

Today’s public authorities devote vast resources to activities that are mundane or require little creativity or involve paperwork that will be computerised sooner or later, many of which could be outsourced, but what public-sector organisations need is massive injections of talent. There is a pressing need for all this in both regulatory areas, which must understand and anticipate the impact of innovation in emerging fields, and in service sectors, which are affected by the fast-paced evolution of technology.

Administración pública
Public-sector employment continues to suffer from excessively standardised regulations (Photo: Martí Petit)

To start with, it is essential to prioritise the recruitment of intelligence and incorporate into the public sector new skills in areas with the closest links to innovation. The hundreds of thousands of retirements scheduled for the coming years are an opportunity to implement forceful schemes for training and rejuvenating the workforce. Efforts must be made to avoid repeating jobs that do not meet future needs and making indiscriminate layoffs prompted by the fiscal adjustments that will be inevitable.

In order to hire young, highly qualified workers, recruitment systems must be radically changed to make them more flexible and attractive to younger generations. Furthermore, the logic of remuneration systems must be inverted by aligning them with benchmark wage markets and increasing their appeal to the best talent.

More diverse, flexible employment

Public-sector employment continues to suffer from excessively standardised regulations that do not match the plurality of its composition and the diversity of the functions and tasks carried out by public authorities. In addition, this standardised framework features procedures and practices that make its personnel management mechanisms highly inflexible, which in turn places great constraints on management quality, adaptation to change, improvements in efficiency and the ability to innovate.

Regulations governing public employment must guarantee the constitutional principles of merit and capability, but they must do so by clearly differentiating between the exercise of public powers and the activity – mainly in terms of the number of persons involved – of delivering public services. As regards public powers, it is logical to have legal arrangements that prioritise above all the impartiality and independence of those exercising them, while the delivery of public services requires more diverse, flexible forms of employment, more akin to ordinary paid employment, with a focus on talent, performance, learning and adaptation to change.

The delivery of public services requires more diverse, flexible forms of employment, more akin to ordinary paid employment

The more diverse, flexible public employment we need must feature different types of contracts and functions. Flexible personnel management practices are needed as regards hiring and dismissal, duration, mobility, assessment, development and incentives to cater for this diversity. In addition, in order to manage this system, it is essential to decentralise personnel managerial functions and assign them to the management of the different entities, bodies, units and teams.

Against this backdrop of profound, fast-paced change, the overriding concern of these reforms must be to bolster the guarantees of integrity in the activity of public employees. In short, the future of public employment is at stake in four main areas: reinforcement of values; planning; strengthening and updating the merit system; and difference management.

Leadership and management

Our public authorities are more used to doing things than making things happen. They find it easier to row than be at the helm. In addition, their relationships with other social agents continue to be dominated by self-sufficient, vertical models even though the creation of public value is an increasingly collaborative task nowadays.

Furthermore, better and more effective public expenditure will be crucial in the new scenario characterised by severe resource constraints. This calls for significant improvements in managerial capabilities. In our public authorities, the exercise of public management has been shackled by the political colonisation of management so often decried, and also by the limitations of public-sector bureaucracy as regards the production, recognition and incorporation of managerial capabilities in public authorities.

Gasto público
Better and more effective public expenditure will be crucial in the new scenario characterised by severe resource constraints (Photo: Public administration building/Junta Granada Informa)

In the economic and social scenario under consideration the public sector must assimilate a strategic role based on spearheading social processes that can make a great impact on the areas where Spain’s priorities are concentrated. This role will oblige it to adopt collaborative approaches open to the economic agents and organisations in civil society, and will require the sorts of service management most appropriate in each instance, using either internal or external means. This will also require the active development of well-known or emerging forms of public-private collaboration, and will entail networking and embracing the co-production of services with the general public.

The body politic must grasp the value added of having professional management structures in public authorities

In parallel, it will be essential to define more precisely the frameworks of managerial and political accountability inside the institutions. Once and for all, the body politic must grasp the value added, in terms of smooth running and legitimisation, of having   professional management structures in public authorities. The reform of the upper echelons of public authorities is a political proposal in the interests of sound politics. This delimitation must be the basis for the coordinated design of decentralised organisations that give directors the managerial freedom necessary to be responsible for creating value in their own area.

This managerial capability makes it essential and urgent to establish a judicial framework specifically for professional public management in order to safeguard this management from political and election turbulence and keep it separate from ordinary public functions without trying to apply the formulae typical of such functions to it. It will then be necessary to build on this basis to develop result-oriented management mechanisms, and then create well-defined frameworks of managerial responsibility and design systems to incentivise efficiency.

The changes involved are of such dimensions and significance that they lie within the realm of structural reforms

The series of guidelines we propose here does not constitute a sectoral reform that must be designed by civil servants and implemented for civil servants. The changes involved are of such dimensions and significance that they lie within the realm of structural reforms, i.e. far-reaching transformations which, as occurs in the spheres of taxation, pensions, education and employment, are necessary to ensure that the social and economic advancement of a country does not grind to a halt. As such, they require the consensus of the main political forces. We cannot emerge unscathed from the vast economic and social fallout of the pandemic unless we deal with our public sector and include its reform in the political agenda of institutional reforms that must be undertaken in the coming months.

Article originally published in Spanish in Agenda Pública | El País.

* Authors:

  • Marc Esteve. Professor, Department of Political Science, University College London.
  • Mila Gascó. Professor, Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany.
  • Rafael Jiménez Asensio. Public administration consultant. Full University Professor (accredited).
  • Fernando Jiménez. Professor of Political Science, Universidad de Murcia.
  • Víctor Lapuente. Full Professor of Political Science, The Quality of Government Institute, University of Goteborg.
  • Francisco Longo. Professor and Head of the Esade Centre for Public Governance.
  • Guillem López Casasnovas. Full Professor of Economics, Pompeu Fabra University.
  • Juan Luis Manfredi. Professor of Journalism and International Studies, Universidad de Castilla La Mancha.
  • Elisa de la Nuez. State Attorney. General Secretary, Fundación Hay Derecho.
  • Eloísa del Pino. Tenured Scientist, Instituto de Políticas y Bienes Públicos, CSIC.
  • Carles Ramió. Full Professor of Political Science, Pompeu Fabra University.
  • Luz Rodríguez. Professor of Labour Law, Universidad de Castilla La Mancha.
  • Carlos Sebastián. Emeritus Professor of Economics, Universidad Complutense.
  • Maite Vilalta. Professor of Economics, University of Barcelona.
  • Manuel Villoria. Full Professor of Political Science, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos.
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