Questioning hierarchies: Senior leaders’ views on how global civil services changed during the pandemic

People in Government Lab publication
Aisha J. Ali
Luis Álvaro Álvarez Calderón
Pedro Arcain Riccetto
Paola del Carpio
Elise El Nouchi
Javier Fuenzalida
Margarita Gómez
Aung Hein
Oswaldo Molina
Martin Williams
Abstract

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic required dramatic changes and new ways of working from civil services around the world. Within this, the immediate pandemic response and shift to remote work have captured most attention, but there has been less analysis of the other ways in which civil services adapted, or of how these changes have shaped the post-pandemic reform agenda. To gain insight on these questions, we interviewed 14 heads of civil service (or other similarly senior officials) from countries on all six continents to understand how they interpret the transformations that have occurred, what they are doing to institutionalise and deepen them, and what they perceive as the next frontiers for change. 

We find that the pandemic imposed a dual imperative on civil services: the need for greater speed, flexibility, and decentralisation of decision-making on the one hand, and for greater coordination and collaboration on the other. These two imperatives sat in tension with each other and led them to make a range of changes, many of which revolved around the common theme of questioning, unpacking, and remaking the traditionally hierarchical structures and norms of their institutions. The specific changes made varied across countries and spanned from the adoption of agile ways of working to the creation of new coordination mechanisms, the adoption of new modes and styles of leadership, and intensified training systems focusing on a broader scope of skills. Senior leaders viewed these changes mainly as an acceleration of pre-existing trends rather than as new ideas, and saw technology as an enabler but not a driver of change. 

Looking past the emergency response phase of the pandemic, leaders are not unanimous in their views on which of these changes are likely to be permanent. However, many perceive an urgent need to change structural aspects of people management and leadership development – from training to personnel evaluation and career management – in order to resolve the challenges and tensions that emerged in this process, and this effort dominates their thinking about institutionalising and continuing change in the medium- to long-term. 

The findings of this report will be presented at the PeopleGov international conference on 15 July.

DOI: 10.35489/BSG-PEOPLEGOV-RP_2022/003