Owen Taylor, National Government & Public Sector Leader, PwC Canada
In a year marked by milestone successes and emerging challenges, the ups and downs of 2021 reinforced the important role government institutions play in our lives.
The procurement and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, support for vital industries, responses to natural disasters and countless other efforts helped citizens see organizations at all levels of government working to keep us safe and the economy moving forward.
At the same time, the pandemic forced these organizations to change how they deliver services to Canadians—as well as rethink what services they provide—while simultaneously navigating the complexities of remote work themselves.
These experiences are equipping government and public-sector leaders to better position their organizations to be even more resilient and ready to meet the evolving expectations of Canadians.
Like their peers in the private sector, government and public-sector leaders face several overlapping human capital challenges. An aging workforce, opaque economic outlook and a mismatch between employees’ current skills and those needed now and in the future are adding more pressure to existing staffing demands.
But against this backdrop, some see an opportunity to build a public-sector workforce of the future by thinking about the employees and capabilities they’ll need to deliver new services in different ways. Many leading organizations are focusing on strengthening several specific capabilities, rather than embarking on overly broad efforts across their workforce. And efforts are increasing to upskill existing staff as well as attract different types of talent to government, including individuals who traditionally may not have considered a public-sector career.
This push comes at an opportune time for government employers. Our global research shows that employees overwhelmingly want to work for organizations that make a positive contribution to society. And the spotlight on the important role of government during the pandemic is highlighting the public sector as an interesting place to work where employees can make a meaningful impact on their communities.
There’s growing recognition that embedding inclusion and diversity into organizational culture fuels innovation, improves performance and attracts top-tier employees. That’s especially true within the public sector, where the importance of inclusion and diversity—already a core tenet in recruiting—is growing. Four in ten government respondents in the CEO Survey we conducted last year said they would be changing their focus on inclusion and diversity to increase their competitiveness (compared to just 23% of overall respondents in Canada).
Many government and public-sector leaders are fostering workplace inclusion and diversity through increasingly sophisticated approaches. For example, we’re seeing organizations raising awareness of inclusiveness challenges such as microaggressions and unconscious biases with enterprise-wide employee training. And, at the same time, more organizations are both measuring their inclusion and diversity objectives as well as reporting their progress.
While mitigating the health and economic impact of COVID-19 required unprecedented public investments, it’s widely accepted that current spending levels can’t be sustained indefinitely.
Budget tolerance levels vary between organizations. But we’re already seeing many adapt in advance of public-sector budgets coming under greater pressure. Organizations are making investments to create more agile and adaptable operations that are fit for purpose and capable of delivering high-priority services in cost-effective ways. This includes an increased emphasis on scenario planning and risk management, as well as identifying potential threats and corresponding mitigation strategies that enable organizations to continue providing key services efficiently and effectively.
Virtually all businesses and organizations are under growing pressure to embed ESG principles into their strategy and operations. Like private-sector businesses, public-sector organizations must show they’re making tangible progress against their ESG targets or risk embarrassment and rising financial costs over time.
But governments are held to an even higher standard—they’re expected to be sustainability leaders. Public-sector organizations are responding by integrating ESG into their operations in various ways, such as by setting sustainability standards for suppliers and considering the reduction in travel-related emissions when drafting remote and hybrid work policies.
But public-sector leaders are also being asked to look outside their own organizations. Citizens want policymakers and business leaders working together toward common ESG goals. In 2022, we’re anticipating even greater collaboration across industry and government to move the country closer to achieving its sustainability ambitions.
Many services that governments historically delivered in-person were hastily brought online out of necessity during the pandemic. As organizations catch up through investments in back-office processes to properly support these public-facing services, many are seeing emerging digital government opportunities that include new data possibilities and greater transparency for citizens.
But bringing so many services—as well as sensitive, personal information—online increases the risk of data breaches that raise privacy concerns and can erode trust in public institutions. In response, we’re seeing government organizations strengthening safeguards through cybersecurity investments as well as seeking external validation of their strategies to keep information protected and systems intact.
Government and public-sector organizations are experiencing unprecedented levels of change. Confronted with new citizen expectations and unforeseen challenges, they’re reimagining their workforces, operating models, digital tools and how they reflect the values of their constituents.
The year ahead presents an opportunity for organizations to deepen the trust they’ve built in 2021. It will require finding a balance between building resilience to confront unexpected events in the future and making the investments needed to foster operational stability and sustainable service delivery models. But momentum is on our side. The experiences and achievements over the past year are a reason for optimism—both for public-sector organizations and the citizens they serve.