Accelerating the digital transformation of administrations
Covid-19 is an accelerator of trends. From teleworking to leisure and audiovisual consumption patterns, the pandemic forces us to rethink the foundations of public administration for the new normal or the old complexity.
The public sector should catch the approaching wave in order to lead a substantial change in form and content alike. The decision is a political one, although the mechanisms for the design and implementation of programmes should operate through professional and professionally oriented public management. The aim here is to combine the experience of civil servants and public employees with private initiative and social enterprise.
Today more than ever, the public sector is not only an affair of civil service bodies, but must attract ideas, talent and investment.
The public sector should catch the approaching wave in order to lead a substantial change in form and content alike
The Covid crisis also brings forth a crisis of confidence in the social contract that is assumed between the state and the citizen. In order to regain credit it is necessary to promote a model of public policies that matches the new times. In the crisis of 2008, reforms came late and fell short of guaranteeing the change that was needed. Today, with a wicked public health scenario, it is essential to decide what institutions we want for the next crisis. Because there will be one.
The transformation of the administration is an ambitious project, and it is never the right moment to start. Not now, because the economic crisis doesn’t allow us to think long-term. Not now, because there’s a caretaker government. Not now, because public health absorbs everything. One day someone will have to face the need for transformation and lead a process with the ultimate goal of placing citizens – and their needs or demands – at the heart of public administrations.
In my opinion the post-Covid scenario is the right time, because the pandemic has accelerated and naturalised the use of digital technologies and tools to interact with the administration, society and the market. Thus, digital transformation has begun and it needs a guide to ensure that it is inclusive, that it addresses inequality, and that it is safe for all sociodemographic segments.
The project of digital transformation of public administrations has two interpretations. The first aspect is investment in infrastructures, for the purpose of providing the digital environment with an efficient and competitive point of access. For citizens, this translates into better services, automation of relations with the administration and interoperability between various sector public stakeholders (tax office, department of transport, health system or school enrolment). For enterprise, it means investment opportunities (infrastructures, devices, servers) and direct grants for digital transformation of services. I am talking not only about marketing, but also about operations, B2B, the production process and sale to the final consumer. Digital infrastructures are at the root of competitiveness and service to the citizen.
Digital transformation has begun and it needs a guide to ensure that it is inclusive, that it addresses inequality, and that it is safe for all sociodemographic segments
We should then add a second line of action which consists in fostering a change of economic model from the public sector, focusing less on physical resources and more on industrial projects of a digital nature.
Cyber-security management, data science, online educational services, service delivery and digital leisure in Spanish all need legal certainty, political backing and long-term planning. In a European perspective, these measures must contribute to the discourse on European digital sovereignty, which starts with data protection and privacy and ends with the proposal for the reshoring of strategic industries with a technological basis.
Competing in the technological arena requires a European vision that combines the interests of citizens, governments and companies based here. To this we should add the necessary change that is looming in the medical, health and care sector. Digital transformation points towards therapy and follow-up service delivery, as well as telemedicine in a multitude of dimensions (diagnosis, prevention, citizen care, basic treatment, exchange of information, notifications and agenda, to mention the most common).
Competing in the technological arena requires a European vision that combines the interests of citizens, governments and companies
The digital transformation landscape will call for leadership and appropriate training. In this regard, the post-Covid scenario seems timely. Mass retirement of public employees is on the horizon, as a result of the age pyramid to be found in the public sector.
Alongside the age issue, automation of services and jobs as a consequence of robotisation should lead us to think about what sort of professional profiles are demanded by a digital public administration, what sort of labour relations are of interest to attract specialised talent in real time, and what is expected in the way of management renewal.
Strategic thinking with regard to human resources is urgent, because digital transformation will bring new types and models of employment, and at the same time will eliminate others with low value-added.
In my opinion, the incorporation of new staff should not only follow an industrial stock pattern (so many civil servants per department or area), but should explore a flow model (input, output, peaks, one-off or structural specialisation), more in line with digital society, project work and interoperability among public sector employees. Civil servants must guarantee service stability and continuity, although linking these qualities to a single vision of labour relations impoverishes the debate.
This issue is even more evident in the professional public management of digital affairs. It is necessary to incorporate social innovation, entrepreneurs, technologists or experts in digital culture and anthropology, without undervaluing current qualifications. Technology may be the testing ground public management needs to seduce private talent linked to a project for the digital and industrial transformation of the Spanish economy.
Now is the right time for several reasons. First, artificial intelligence and automation will allow us to redefine tasks and will eliminate a host of duties associated with certain job areas and levels.
Second, the administration faces an unprecedented generational turnover. According to Spanish National Institute of Statistics data, around 40% of staff in the administration are over 50 years old. They are close to retirement, all the more so in “political and administrative times”.
The administration faces an unprecedented generational turnover
The third element is the fiscal crisis: priorities will have to be set for duties, tasks and activities in post-Covid society. Politics is the art of choosing priorities for a project in which we can coexist.
So it is imperative to reflect on the needs of public employment – which capabilities should be incorporated into the administration, and which others can be outsourced – and which services will have to be provided in the mid term. It means thinking out and carrying through a transformation of profile selection and the organisation of departments and duties on two levels. In calls for new government jobs it would be wise to review what is meant by equality, merit and capability.
The system of competitive examinations undoubtedly has its advantages and has fulfilled its purpose. However, in the new times it would be wise to consider other formats and labour relations, such as project-based management, professionalisation of management positions in the public sector or the incorporation of private talent into the administration by means of agreements and open ecosystems.
In particular, digital professionals are not motivated for a model of competitive examination and a job for life, instead seeking challenges, projects and the ability to transform. Change management starts with the selection and motivation of the people who carry it out.
Digital professionals are not motivated for a model of competitive examination and a job for life
For those professionals who are already within the administration it is necessary to consider a training model based on continuous improvement that enables them to incorporate new professional skills and abandon practices with low value-added for the citizen. If artificial intelligence or data science makes it possible to leave certain duties aside, those people will be able to take on other tasks. There will be no shortage of human, close, emotion-related work for them.
Indeed, during Covid we have seen the irreplaceable value of contact and caring for people. Upskilling begins with reviewing job descriptions and ends with the incorporation of technologies to improve service to the citizen.
In short, we should try to identify public sector duties, areas or tasks that can catch the approaching technological wave. This is the essence of technology-based upskilling. Let Covid be to digital transformation what the 2008 financial crisis was to the internationalisation and opening up of the Spanish economy. It’s never the right time. Nor is it now. Because of that, we will need leadership and commitment to a healthy public sector that promotes digital welfare.
Prince of Asturias Distinguished Visiting Professor at Georgetown UniversityView profile
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