Almost overnight, the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has transformed the work and workplaces of the public sector. Public servants are playing a leading role in the response to the pandemic. Healthcare workers are keeping medical systems functioning and families safe. Civil Servants are finding novel ways to design and channel unprecedented economic stimulus spending and manage severe spikes in unemployment.

To achieve this, public sector workforces are being asked to work in new ways and new contexts. Line Ministries and agencies are learning how to use new technology and tools ‘on-the-go’, often alongside old procedures and processes. Individual public servants are adapting work and personal time to meet family and caring commitments. The public sector has become ‘accidentally agile’, with new procedures and protocols governing remote working, accelerated hiring processes, and fast-track mobility programmes developed with unprecedented speed.

Post-pandemic, governments may be in a position to review and capitalise on many of the changes introduced, and place them on a more sustainable footing. In the more immediate term, the task facing public employers will be how to get public servants back to work safely and resume non-pandemic related service delivery.

In this context, OECD Public Employment and Management Officials met virtually on April 15, 2020. The meeting provided a platform to share and reflect on the current state of the public service in OECD countries; discuss innovations being developed and deployed to work productively in this context; and raise key challenges faced now and in the future. This note is a synthesis and summary of the broad areas of agreement and of the more detailed public management measures compiled in the compendium: “Initial Budget and Public Management Responses to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic in OECD Countries”.

Across the OECD, employment in central government administrations amounts to nearly 18% of the workforce (Figure 1). In 2015, an average of 9.5% of GDP was spent in OECD Member countries on general government employee compensation, making this the largest input in the production of government goods and services. These data underscore the scale of the human and financial resources now being mobilised and adapted to combat the pandemic.

The healthcare sector is also a significant employer across the OECD (Figure 2). In 2017, about one in every 10 jobs across the OECD was found in health or social care. Key measures taken by governments include the procurement and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, the re-hiring of recently retired doctors, nurses and support staff, the acceleration of medical training programmes, and the up-skilling and re-deployment of public servants to assist with non-technical healthcare work, such as contact tracing.

In the longer-term this crisis can enable governments to adapt many of the traditional assumptions upon which public employment policies are based. For example, the relationship between employees’ presence in the office, mobile technology and worker productivity will likely be re-examined. What would this mean for performance management? For recruitment? Evaluating, adjusting, and formalising aspects of the immediate response can provide public administrations with much-needed flexibility and dynamism to face future challenges.

The immediate focus of public administrations is on protecting public servants and ensuring that essential public services can still be delivered. Governments will then manage the return to offices and a resumption and acceleration of non-pandemic related work. Solutions being proposed differ across administrations. Nevertheless, early lessons from the pandemic response indicate that flexibility will be key. Some countries are exploring staggered arrival times, adjusting physical workplaces to enable social distancing, and requiring employees to wear masks and other personal protective equipment. Furthermore, most public employers will likely continue to use teleworking flexibility to limit the number of people in the physical office at any one time. Many governments are actively engaging with public sector unions and employee associations to build consensus on the steps needed return to work safely.

“We took a leap into the fourth industrial revolution in just a matter of weeks” – PEM Working Party delegate   

Administrations across the OECD have already begun to consider the longer-term impacts of changes that have been rapidly introduced during the pandemic. The post-crisis period will be a unique opportunity to capitalise on changes whose implementation was expected to occur only gradually in the future. Examples include large-scale remote working, agile tools to reallocate the workforce, and streamlined and technology-enhanced people management processes such as recruitment and training.

The pandemic response has shone a spotlight on the work and worth of public servants. The crisis thus presents a new opportunity to reinforce the attractiveness of the public service as a career of choice for a new generation of skilled workers who are motivated by public values. Governments can emphasise the impact and value of a public service career through communication and outreach strategies, helped by streamlined tools and ways of working, such as online assessment and video screening. Senior civil servants, increasingly in the public eye through management of the crisis, can amplify the message.

The pandemic has also highlighted the duty of care of government to its employees. In many countries, leave and pay arrangements have been adapted to enable staff to recover from illness or care for others. Governments are also taking special measures to protect the mental health of employees, tracked through employee surveys and addressed through access to counselling and peer support. Engaging and motivating healthy public sector employees post-pandemic will be a fundamental success factor for longer-term change and innovation.

The box below outlines steps that countries can take now to make the most of changes.

Further reading

OECD, Recommendation of the Council on Public Service Leadership and Capability, OECD/LEGAL/0445

OECD (2019), Health at a Glance 2019: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/4dd50c09-en.

OECD (2017), Skills for a High Performing Civil Service, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264280724-en

OECD (2016), Engaging Public Employees for a High-Performing Civil Service, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264267190-en

Contact

Jón R. BLÖNDAL (✉ jon.blondal@oecd.org)

Daniel GERSON (✉ daniel.gerson@oecd.org)

Dónal MULLIGAN (✉ donal.mulligan@oecd.org)

Disclaimer

This paper is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and the arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

© OECD 2020

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