In a world of e-governance, how must public servants respond and how must organizations change in order to enable them to adapt to an administration and clientele increasingly online?
The answer is neither simplistic nor clear. Early research on the impacts of information technologies on public sector organizations suggests a dissection of the public service into three somewhat distinct cadres: senior executives, middle management and front-line workers.
For the first group, senior managers are with few exceptions rarely users of new technology, viewing it as a support function while paying lip service to the importance of online activity. The middle management group, contrary to the perception of its decline, is in fact the most fertile ground for innovation, whereas front-line workers by and large resent technology as online delivery replaces human activity.
The consequences of such a breakdown for human resource renewal are as important as the risks are significant. How these three pieces fall into place will likely determine the capacity of governments to respond effectively to an increasingly networked society.
The most dangerous scenario presenting itself today is that the current cadre of senior executives will by and large oversee their own renewal, opting for skills and personalities not unlike themselves. Such individuals have grown accustomed to a culture of control, order and risk avoidance. Asking them to embrace the Internet generation is perhaps asking a bit much.
Accordingly, many of the best and the brightest in the middle ranks of government, stymied by a lack of openness to change, simply depart. The recent meltdown of many technology companies paradoxically accentuates this risk through the pretense that the retention crisis in government is over (since workers have nowhere else to go). While there is certainly a healthy rebalancing of private and public spheres for some, opportunities for the most skilled workers remain plentiful and the promise of stability is hardly an enticement to stay.
The picture is also worrisome for front-line workers. Although the rhetoric of customer relationship management implies retooling the public service to better respond to clients, the reality of online government is to make this connection virtual. The offline segment of service delivery still requiring face to face services, in areas like social and health care and education, is handled by the group of public servants most chronically frustrated by higher workloads and insufficient resources.
This dangerous path is complicated by a little talked about aspect of e-government, namely the technological capacity to centralize information and power in the hands of the few. Rather than empowering front-line workers, advanced technology often enables greater control and tighter steering from the centre. In a political climate of risk avoidance, technology then becomes a lever to insulate those already in charge.
For governments to both survive and succeed in an online world, a new culture must take hold — based on collaboration, openness to change and results-based assessment. A diversity of skills, personalities and even ethnic cultures must redefine models of decision-making and learning. Traditional barriers between departments, between governments and even between sectors are giving way to networks and partnerships. Interdependence replaces independence if performance is to become more important than process.
Technology alone is insufficient, but it is an important enabler in the required organizational transformation. The public service needs a new generation of leaders prepared to deploy technology in more strategic and innovative ways than in the past. These new leaders must then properly invest in the front-line workers of government to design a digital government that facilitates change rather than dictates action.
In Ottawa, a positive step for the federal government would be to assign individual departments and agencies full control over their human resource management. Central agencies would then be limited to monitoring and facilitating mobility rather than attempting to run the entire public service under a single and invariably burdensome set of rules. Yet, current efforts to reform human resource systems appear narrow and cautious.
At the heart of the matter are difficult choices surrounding the merit principle. The missing link is political will. Only elected officials have the power to both overcome bureaucratic resistance and defend the unavoidable risks of change to a public that is nonetheless intelligent enough to understand the need. The inescapable conclusion is that politcal reform and human resource renewal are inter-twined elements of the difficult transition to a world of e-governance that is only just begun.
Jeffrey Roy is managing director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit the Centre at http://www.governance.uottawa.ca.