COVID-19 Shows Urgency of Next Gen Workforce (Contributed)

Meeting the changing needs of citizens through continued disruption will mean states and localities must embrace modern technology and adapting civil service rules to accommodate remote and digital talent.

by Gianluca Cairo / June 1, 2020

Before the COVID-19 crisis forced businesses of all stripes to accelerate their digital agenda, the public sector was already behind the innovation curve. The needs of citizens, communities, and employees are in constant flux, as digital technology transforms in real time the way citizens access information, connect with each other, and live their lives. COVID-19 has put the public sector’s laggard status into sharper relief, underscoring the urgency for government agencies to modernize operations to work smarter, recruit and retain better talent and respond faster to an ever-changing and often unpredictable world.  

Especially in this moment, all eyes have been fixed on government with hopes it can move quickly to solve these problems at scale and under increasing pressure. What would have been an unprecedented challenge in the best-case scenario has been made even more difficult to manage, hampered by the public sector’s reputation for outdated technology systems, slow processes, and rigid hierarchical structures. And with a workplace environment that lags far behind private firms in terms of innovation and collaboration, concerns persist about the sector’s ability to attract and retain the right talent in order to rise to the challenge.

However, there have been glimmers of hope in this regard, as the sector has shown some uncharacteristic agility in responding to the issue. For instance, the use of the Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has accelerated approvals of tests and drugs. Swift development and implementation allowed $2 trillion of relief spending to get out the door in a matter of weeks. 

But the crisis has revealed just how much the public sector is lagging behind with technology and its impact on business continuity, specifically how quickly it can transition to a remote work culture. Its famously outdated working environments make it difficult for the public-sector workforce to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Furthermore, the lack of continuity and alignment to goals, and collaboration across departments and regions, make things even more difficult to manage when working remotely. Mastering this model and fully operationalizing a next-gen workforce in a post-COVID work environment is the new standard, and the public sector will need to leverage the momentum they’ve created and carry the lessons learned forward. 

Long-term success for the public sector will depend on how it modernizes technology and culture in order to attract, retain and empower a new generation of talent, but also to adapt to the workplace of the future and the changing needs of society. And it’s going to take an entirely new approach to recruiting, including overhauling HR processes to reach younger talent, as well as revisiting systems and technology to create a more tech-driven environment. A few examples of what’s needed include:

  • Integration of technologies to foster collaboration: Agencies with antiquated systems and old-school cultures must make sweeping changes to attract top talent in the future. Automated platforms and modern communication devices make it possible to work collaboratively in teams, either in-office or across different regions and time zones. By introducing better communication channels, organizations can build trust, foster relationships and take steps toward developing a culture of innovation to drive better — and faster — outcomes, particularly in times of crisis when the needs are the highest.
  • A rebrand of the public service: By clearly communicating the values and community benefits that come with a career in public service, agencies can revitalize their brand — potentially trumping the financial rewards offered by private-sector companies. Organizations can start strong by developing recruitment marketing content that presents a comprehensive picture of public service with compelling reasons why a career in this sector is worth pursuing. Examples include highlighting the opportunity to contribute to broad impact, mission-driven work, and the opportunity to help create policy solutions that can have a positive impact on many communities.
  • Building a modern, digital workplace within the public service: First and foremost, this includes a seamless remote work setup. This will mean establishing a foundation of modern technology with the right systems in place to automate time-intensive tasks, expedite workflow, and ensure efficient processes. And with the shift to remote work, it’s also imperative to make an investment in mobile-friendly tools and software that will empower employees, giving them the ability to connect and work anytime, anywhere.

Furthermore, building a next-gen workforce within the public sector will mean changing government civil service rules to make them more flexible to hire or contract with the digital or remote talent. Only 43 percent of federal employees were eligible to work from home in fiscal 2017, a data point that looms larger in the time of lockdowns and remote work. This challenge is twofold: 

  1. Public service does not have the appropriate technology — for example, hardware and secure connections — to facilitate working from home.
  2. Collective bargaining agreements limit the ability for employees to work from home, and administration of work-from-home policies varies from agency to agency.

I have spent most of my career in the public sector and believe this pandemic has underscored the criticality of public-sector services in the eyes of all citizens. After all, it is the public sector who 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 modernizing 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. 

Gianluca Cairo is the vice president and principal of Public Sector Advisory for Ceridian — a global human capital management software company.  

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