Almost four billion people — more than half the world’s population — are estimated to be in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has forced governments everywhere to adapt, as working from home is becoming the new norm — including for public servants. Many public servants are working on government responses to this crisis, while at the same time facing its impacts on their personal lives.
So what do public servants need most during the COVID-19 crisis?
We surveyed 750 public servants, primarily from Canada, the UK, Australia and the United States, but in total including voices from 52 countries.* The survey ran from 26 March to 8 April. Respondents were asked to choose from a list of potential challenges, and also to say in their own words what would be most helpful to them during this time.
Across the survey responses, these six things consistently emerged, from mental health to the need for rapid digitisation — as what public servants most need (full survey results available here).**
1. An effective, healthy approach to remote working
Public servants are people too, and they’re struggling with the challenges of working from home: juggling work and childcare, and maintaining their own motivation and productivity. Managers need help with managing and motivating their staff remotely.
Mental health and morale: Many are grappling with the mental impacts from the crisis and from working from home. Managers are concerned about staff morale. Some public servants feel their managers are not being understanding or supportive with the current challenges of working. Working from home means the boundaries between home and work are becoming blurrier — kids and pets regularly appear on video conferences, for example. Some find this helps them bond with their colleagues, while others feel it adds to their stress.
2. Better internal communications across government
In a time of rapid change, communications and coordination are key. They are also among public servants’ greatest challenges during this time. Those who work on communicating to the public need help with coordinating messaging across government agencies.
Others working on the response are struggling to manage internal government communications and collaboration across agencies. With the COVID-19 situation swiftly evolving, one public servant suggested a space be created for service providers and policy professionals to communicate and coordinate on crisis measures like social distancing.
3. Ways to support vulnerable populations and small businesses
Vulnerable populations and small businesses are top priorities for public servants who are concerned with the economic and social impacts of the crisis. With severe threats to the health and livelihoods of these groups, some governments are putting in place measures such as loan schemes for businesses and new, dedicated services for the vulnerable.
4. Ways to digitise government services and programs
The crisis has amplified the needs of vulnerable populations, but it’s also constrained governments’ ability to support them. Government services and programmes — for both vulnerable people and wider society — need to be digitised, where possible. Public servants need innovative ways to digitise programmes that have relied on in-person events such as community development and capacity building.
5. Help with managing overloaded leaders
The wide-reaching nature of the COVID-19 crisis means that leaders in government have huge demands placed on their time and attention. This has knock-on effects for the public servants working under them, who are trying to continue the regular, important work of government in addition to responding to the crisis.
Those in charge need help with crisis decision-making, leadership and communications, including on decisions like whether their staff should come into the office. And those under them need help managing upwards, to support their leaders’ needs and to encourage them to delegate where possible.
6. The technology to access government IT systems from home
Government IT systems are set up for optimal security of public information and devices, meaning they are often not accessible from public servants’ homes or personal devices. Chat and video conferencing tools, which have been useful to many others dealing with the crisis, are often not accessible from public servants’ work computers or phones. Some respondents reported still not being able to access their work emails or facing severe connectivity issues that prevent them from getting their work done.
These challenges are real and unlikely to go away anytime soon. The world will continue to grapple with the crisis and its economic, political and social impacts. Public servants — who work to support citizens — deserve all the help they can get. Some are already sharing great ideas with each other, like how to meet the new digital services challenges. Over 1,300 members of the Apolitical public servant network are coming together for 15 minutes of daily remote yoga to look after their mental and physical wellbeing.
* Fifty-three percent of the respondents work in central or federal government, 30% work at the regional level, and 12% work in city or other local government. Among the respondents, 46% have roles in policy or programme delivery, 38% work in policy decisions/design and 15% work in service delivery such as health care or social care. Around half are managers of a team or department.
** Respondents could select more than option, so the sum of percentages will exceed 100%