IRSPM SIG Public Sector Human Resources 

Report on the meeting: Challenge of Covid-19 and Impact on Public Services

The IRSPM SIG, Public Sector Human Resources, held its Africa/ Europe time zone meeting on 11 December. The meeting had representation of SIG members from Africa, the UK, Germany, and Italy.

There were rich perspectives of the effects of pandemic on respective countries in general, government reactions, and a discussion per country of the challenges that the public sector and public sector employees are facing. The conversations overlapped with perspectives of country challenges and predictions for the next twelve months and into the future.

Overall, most expressed a view of the lack of preparedness for the pandemic and a lack of strategic thinking. As one member stated, ‘There was divided attention.’ This divided attention, prior to the pandemic, saw governments concentrating on immediate concerns within countries such as addressing inequality and poverty, reforms, budget constraints, recovering from the last recession and in the case of the UK a preoccupation with Brexit. Most governments’ response was reactionary with poor policy making, U-turns and policies that had unintended outcomes. There was also a discussion of the political architecture and multilevel governance (e.g. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England; Federalism in Germany) and how authorities dealt with the pandemic often resulting in conflicts among politicians and senior civil servants. The unintended outcomes of policies decisions (e.g. in South Africa the banning of the sale of alcohol and cigarettes increased black market activity) highlighted in the inadequacy of poor public policy skills and knowledge of community reactions.

There was a discussion of poor political leadership or authentic leadership. The comments here were about poor policy making, reactionary measures, and poor communication which has an impact upon public trust. However, in the case of Germany there was reassurance by the leadership of Angela Merkel and her scientific background. The role of experts was mentioned and future research could explore the reliance of political leadership on scientific experts to provide an evidence base for policy making in a time of crisis.

An issue raised by many members was poor procurement. In some countries there was incompetence in procurement and tender procedures, corruption and fraud, for example in the securing PPE. The fault lines and risk in the supply chains of PPE was evident, which some members were of the view is an indictment New Public Management and fragmentation of public services being contracted out to non-public sector providers.

The frontline public sector employees, in particular those within the health (nurses), care (elderly care workers) and education (teachers) sectors, demonstrated the professionalism and emotional labour of public service delivery. However, this was not true for all sectors. For example, in South Africa the use of the military to enforce a civilian lockdown showed abuses. Therefore, the ethics and professional standards of public servants is an issue that will need to be addressed and the emotional labour of frontline staff is an area that deserves attention. 

There were areas of public service that were neglected and not foreseen to be an issue during the first lockdown, which was slow to emerge on the policy agenda. Most members raised the concern that gender-based violence, in particular domestic violence increased, but was not on the policy agenda. Government and policing responses were poor and in some countries not existent. Child-care was another issue that was neglected. For many home-schooling while working from home proved a challenge. Working from home did not necessarily mean a work-life balance rather there was a blurring of boundaries between work and care roles, which increased the intensity of work, workloads and stress. As one member mentioned, governments did not realize that many essential key public sector workers such as teachers, nurses and care workers were women, who often carry the burden of care and domestic work at home. The pandemic amplified the gendered division of labour in the home and in the public sector.

Another public policy and service issue that was neglected was care for the elderly. Governments were late in realizing the impact of the virus on the elderly, which may highlight that for some countries there is a fragmentation of public services across many providers (public, private, non-profit organisations) that provide care for the elderly.

All members articulated the issue of the digital divide. Some public sector organisations did not have funds to supply all public sector employees with access to laptops. In some countries there is a lack of internet infrastructure and/or poor connectivity to the internet. The technology and internet interface between work and home was also problematic. A member also raised the issue that some public sector employees she spoke to had concerns over security of data and working online from home. There was also a need and at a fast pace to digitally upskill and how to use various platforms for online working. The delivery of public services online also highlighted E-exclusion with many citizens not having access to computers and the internet.

The pandemic highlighted the stark inequalities in societies. The pandemic showed that many did not have access to internet and technology, the limitations of public services and the lack of social welfare in some countries. For example, people had a stark choice of working to feed families or catching the virus, while in countries such as Germany and the UK social welfare system fared better.

Whether productivity increased or decreased during lockdown was debatable and an area for future research.

Most members agreed that in the future there will be a shortage of resources for public services. As many governments across the globe has borrowed heavily to deal with the effects of the pandemic, there will be austerity measures that will be introduced in the near future. There will be recruitment freezes, redundancies, reduction in the wage bill and the public sector may not be a destination for talented recruits, exactly when the public sector needs skilled and professional staff to deal with the challenges of the impact of the pandemic. The view was that in the future there will be the same old issues of poor or slow pace of service delivery (in some countries corruption); inability  to cope with rising levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality; effect of freezing public sector wage bill on motivation of staff, recruitment of scarce skills and retention; poor public health care infrastructure and lack of medical professionals to cope with the patient load; challenges with roll out of vaccine especially in countries with poor healthcare infrastructure.