Public service for a new era: how to outmanoeuvre shifts in attitudes


Kgomotso Lebele | Managing Director | Health and Public Service | Accenture Africa | mail me

After months of managing the COVID-19 crisis, people and businesses are depending on the public sector to guide them through the next several months and possibly years of uncertainty.

It’s time to capitalise on what’s been achieved via the new policies and service delivery models that were developed in response to the crisis. Develop a more effective strategic plan by thinking through dimensions of resilience, versatility, and sustainability to determine which solutions to end, which to evolve and which to expand as standard practice.

As you plan for a post-lockdown future, your priorities and decisions should further align with the new ways of interacting. We have identified five shifts in attitudes concerning citizens, service, collaboration, workforce, and trust and how to outmanoeuvre them.

Citizens – All eyes on public service

COVID-19 heightened people’s awareness of the role of public service in our daily lives. Citizens and businesses realised that there are certain things only government can do, and this hyper focus on public service offers a window of opportunity to re-establish the public service brand.

What you do during this time and how, has implications for people’s perception of government and their relationships with the public sector.

Seek and use expert advice from public health officials and scientists to maintain people’s confidence in government, and willingness to change their behaviours. Retain this transparency and access moving forward.

Plan for all possibilities with scenario planning, and consider driving outcomes-based decisions by using digital twin technologies to explore ‘what-if’ and ‘then-what’ scenarios.

Disruption will come again so build the muscle to flex and be ready to quickly scale and pivot capacity. Understand priorities, assess real-time data, redeploy people and resources, and make new arrangements with staff and suppliers to be more proactive and responsive as circumstances change.

Service – the human face of virtual

Virtual interactions will not end with lockdowns and perfecting this service delivery model is about more than selecting the right technology.

Maintaining the spirit of human connectedness is essential in government because many of the services that agencies provide are vital to people’s livelihoods. The trick is to provide the right mix of virtual options and alternatives to meet diverse needs.

Know your customers and forget any assumptions you may have about who they are. Tap into the tremendous data stores at your fingertips to understand who they are, what they need, how they want to receive it, and design services based on intent, not transactions.

Emphasise equity of access and support all stakeholders and situations by creating multiple pathways for people to interact with the digital and physical channels of their choice.

Lastly, design from the outside in, and create solutions that work for people from a diversity of inputs. Innovate service delivery with approaches that are deeply centered in human design concepts.

Collaboration – building without boundaries

In the COVID-19 world, different levels of government and public agencies came together around a common mission.

Strengthening the relationships forged during the crisis can create a greater and more integrated role for non-government entities, businesses, non-profits and citizens. New ways of working should be codified and continually refined to build on the gains made and strengthen future preparedness.

Build a powerful team by identifying the partners you need to help you deliver the mission – be sure to include some creative options, and make it easy for them to work with you.

Create a culture of ‘we’ by aligning around a shared purpose now both within your organisation and across your ecosystem partners. Take advantage of a shared purpose to energise teams and improve working relationships.

Lastly, unite around shared outcomes. As you evolve ecosystem relationships and create new ones, ensure that everyone understands the desired outcomes from the start.

Workforce – workforce superpowers

Public servants have risen to the challenge of unimaginable circumstances during the crisis. Balancing the need to be productive and deliver outcomes for citizens and business with keeping employees safe is critical.

There are opportunities to push the boundaries of productive remote work and leverage human and machine collaboration for a more adaptive workforce. Doing this well takes a truly-human spirit and empathy that informs expectations and interactions with employees.

Reconfigure work structures and all the functions within your agency to determine which roles are best completed in which model. Account for the impact on service delivery and effective team collaboration. The pandemic has taught us to rethink essential skills.

Adaptability, flexibility and the ability to work well amid uncertainty are now the essential ‘super hero’ skills for your workforce. Improve performance by valuing these soft skills, developing learning programs to cultivate them and recruiting for them.

Lastly, create a safety experience at work. Adapt, develop and communicate new safety protocols. With every employee having different safety thresholds, explore personalised policies as possible.

Trust – the new social contract

Keeping the public’s trust is an ongoing process. It rests on how governments lead nations through economic recovery and shape policies and a safety net that helps protect people’s personal and financial health and their personal safety.

Public service organisations that are good stewards of public trust during this recovery period will have it as a critical foundation for governing through the next crisis.

Feedback from the public helps you understand the impact, efficacy and ‘unintended consequences’ of policies, programmes, and operational changes. Therefore keep eyes and ears open to public sentiment through virtual town halls and social media monitoring.

Acknowledge any issues that arise and clearly communicate your response and what happens next. Be radically transparent and define expectations openly and honestly to fuel collective action and voluntary participation.

Finally, act as expert data stewards. Citizens’ willingness to share personal data is key to your ability to predict and prepare for future outbreaks, so ensure that there are strict data protections at pan-national, national and organisational levels. Make cultural changes so that data is used effectively and responsibly.

Be ambitious, bold, and flexible

The virus is still among us, and strengthening preparedness for future disruptions is critical. This will take bold collaboration, tremendous flexibility and relentless innovation from across the public sector.

What’s encouraging is that history has taught us lessons in co-existing with threats to daily life – and people have always persevered.

No one knows how long this period of co-existence with the virus will last but things that were aspirations before, such as widespread touchless service, remote working and telemedicine have become reality out of necessity.

For better or worse, such shifts will profoundly change how we live and work for the foreseeable future.



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