Expert Voices Vol 25, No. 06 - June 2021

Innovating the future of public service

From home schools and offices to remote doctor’s appointments and online tax filing, the COVID-19 pandemic pressed the fast-forward button on the global shift to e-government. We talk to Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, the global union federation of workers in public services, about the promise and challenges of delivering public services in the age of digital revolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed our lives, including a large part of public services, online. How have public servants adapted to this shift?

“The digitalization of public services is a process that has been going on for some time now, in many countries. This transition, sometimes referred to as “e-government”, has been happening as part of the modernization of the public administration in general. Of course, not all countries had been making progress at the same pace.

Whereas there was an overall unpreparedness of national and local governments to deal with the pandemic as such, many public servants were, if not completely ready, then certainly almost ready for the digital challenge, including teachers, who quickly adapted to the online environment. The pandemic fundamentally changed the situation in three aspects: it pushed the transition forward at great speed, shifted many workers to a work-from-home environment, and made us realize who the essential workers are.”

What kind of skills and mindsets will public servants need to effectively deliver in this brave new digital world? How will they acquire them?

“Honesty, courage, commitment, service vocation, are still among key skills and are always needed to become a good public servant, whether it is in digital context or not.

Training is also paramount to acquire digital capabilities and proficiency, but with the generation of digital natives joining the public sector the acquisition of such skills will be much easier than we think.”

Looking forward, what are some of the challenges that the digital revolution poses to public services, especially to those without access to Internet?

“The pandemic has exposed the immense need for investment in public services, including digital infrastructure, which proved critical especially for services such as transport, education, and tax collection, among others. In many places, both where this infrastructure already exists or where it is being developed, it is in the hands of the private actors. One of the main problems with this approach is that the private sector is not going to invest where there is no profit, for example in remote or underprivileged areas. Also, other issues arise, such as privacy and the use and handling of data, which has been labelled the gold of the 21st century.

The state needs to step in to regulate this area to guarantee access to Internet for all, the protection of privacy and sensitive data, and ensure that the generation of data benefits the public good and is treated as a common good.”

On 23 June, the international community will be paying tribute to public servants around the world. Learn more about the UN Public Service Day and this year’s virtual commemoration event here.

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