To meet the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, public servants need to adapt their skills

Those in the frontline of civil service need to constantly learn and evolve to meet the demands of agile governance

Dubai, March, 28, 2019: Borge Brende, President, World Economic Forum gestures during the media conference at the opening of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)In Dubai. Satish Kumar/ For the National
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What is the future of government? From tomorrow, hundreds of experts from across the world will be gathering in the UAE for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils, which aim to shape a sustainable and inclusive future and identify how government will fit into it.

Governments today are 19th century institutions, with 20th century technology addressing 21st century challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, from artificial intelligence and biotechnology to fake news. Citizens want faster services and for their governments to perform with the efficiency of consumer technology. And all of this comes amid extreme demographic shifts, the destruction of climate change and the threat of inequality.

So what is the answer? It is time for public servants to be more agile. Agile governance is adaptive, human-centred, inclusive and sustainable policymaking that acknowledges policy development is no longer limited to governments but rather, an increasingly multi-stakeholder effort.

It’s critical that this process has public servants at its heart. Governments cannot move in new directions without helping their workforces learn new skills.

Many governments are already trialling agile methods with impressive results. For example, the UAE is drastically improving government services by encouraging public servants to work “in crisis mode” and setting 100-day deadlines for solving policy problems, bringing together diverse departments and private sector stakeholders.

One team made up of a huge range of actors – including the police, local government, schools and the media – conducted experiments on five of the deadliest highways in the country to reduce traffic deaths. Their solution combined social media awareness campaigns, road redesigns, highway radars, faster first-response strategies and designated spaces for helipad landing spaces. They ultimately cut deaths by 63 per cent, saving 26 lives.

“We have been trying to solve this problem – by creating committees, enacting policies and laws – but the only thing that worked is getting all the different actors together and committed to a specific goal in a short period of time, then allowing them the space to experiment,” said Huda Al Hashimi, assistant to the director general for strategy and innovation at the prime minister’s office.

Governments today are 19th century institutions, with 20th century technology addressing 21st century challenges

So what skills do public servants need? Apolitical, a global peer-to-peer learning platform for government, used by public servants in more than 170 countries, has identified the future-facing and agile skills and attributes public servants need.

They include the following: being adaptable, so that in high-pressure and unpredictable environments, public servants can shift seamlessly between different responsibilities; being experimental, as ideas can only be systematically improved if practitioners are comfortable thinking outside the box, trying out new approaches and pushing boundaries. “We’ve always done it this way” cannot be an excuse when the challenges are all new.

It is also important to be curious, with public servants continuously looking for new ways to improve services and products; proactive, so that public servants are action-orientated, focused on outcomes and have an eye for translating a broader government vision into concrete policies and programmes; and persuasive, so that when delivering information to the public, public servants can turn complex policy into compelling narratives.

Being co-operative is also key. The global policy community agrees that being open to ideas from others and facilitating group problem-solving is core to the job function.

Public servants must also be data literate. Data cannot be an afterthought in an era of digital transformation. Public servants need to harness the potential of data analytics through proficiency in data collection, visualisation and analysis skills.

And finally, they must be reflective. A skill, an attitude and a habit, being reflective is key to developing competencies, improving actions and learning from outcomes.

Apolitical recently surveyed 1,250 policymakers from 15 countries for these skills. Three key skills for agile governance – persuasion, experimentation and adaptability – scored lowest. On the upside, public servants already rank high on curiosity and proactivity.

Many of the 200 million public servants around the world lack the agile and future-orientated skills to tackle today’s challenges, and most governments are not investing sufficiently. For example, the UK government spends 60 per cent of what the private sector does on training its employees.

In January, Apolitical interviewed 1,000 government workers – including managers and rank-and-file workers – on what motivates and encourages them to learn.

More than 80 per cent said they learn to be better at their jobs. Yet nearly half – a total of 42 per cent of public servants – said they had either no learning or not very helpful resources, and many were unimpressed by government resources.

Public servants, like the general population, show a high interest in more technology-enabled learning, and they want to use it regularly. They need online, bite-sized and continuous learning that is easily accessible, timely and even fun.

Helping our governments adapt for modern challenges is a force multiplier for citizens and the planet. It is time to invest in public servants so they can implement 21st century agile governance.

Lisa Witter is the co-founder and executive chair of Apolitical, a global peer-to-peer learning platform used by public servants in more than 170 countries. She is the co-chair of the Global Future Council on Agile Governance