You only have to glance at “The Public Servant” — a popular Argentinian parody sketch that takes aim at government employees — to get a sense of the sorts of stereotypes that pervade public opinion of government jobs.
With complaints ranging from being out of touch and slow to change, to being secretive and bureaucratic, governments around the world are never short of critics. However, the public sector has come a long way in recent years — and it’s worth taking a moment to ask: how true are some of these claims?
While stereotypes can originate from a seed of truth, we must not ignore the transformations governments are undergoing to challenge this reputation. Check out this list of the 5 biggest misconceptions that governments are debunking.
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1) Government doesn’t listen to citizens
In a recent study conducted by Deloitte in the UK, The State of the State 2018-19, only 19% of participants agreed that public bodies “listened to their preferences” whereas 28% believed that the private sector did.
The sentiment that government is not serving the people is one shared by many citizens around the world. But there are teams on mission to challenge this belief.
Governments around the world are working hard to integrate citizens into the policymaking process. Ghana has introduced an online platform that makes public works data accessible to citizens with the aim of widening political participation. Meanwhile Nariño, in Colombia, has launched Gobierno Abierto de Nariño — a citizen engagement program to tackle mistrust in political institutions. In the UK, parliament has just announced that they will hold a citizens assembly which will plan how the country can attain its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
LABgobar from the Government of Argentina, even went so far as to host Argentina Innova, an innovation competition in which government teams and citizens — namely “anyone willing to join” — co-designed solutions to problems facing their local areas. Through coaching workshops and the guidance of a virtual Open Innovation platform, the competition empowered citizens to work in collaboration with local governments.
According to María José Greloni, Executive Director of Kubadili — an NGO working with governments in Latin America on their agility and innovation, “the perception of public servants that we have in the collective imagination in Argentina is terrible. Argentina Innova shows that the government in Argentina is taking into account citizens’ suggestions in a challenge where the solutions to problems were ideated and suggested by local people.”
2) Working in government is not the way to solve real-world problems
As well as being out of touch with citizens, there is a perception that government is out of touch with the real world all together.
Nevertheless, few deny that a large pull factor for joining the public service is the potential to make a difference in society. It was for this reason that Charles Roxburgh abandoned his consultancy career after 30 years in favour of joining the UK Civil Service. In his blog, he writes: “As civil servants we have the chance to shape policies that affect the nation’s future. We can have impact on a scale that far outstrips what is possible in the private sector. It is an enormous privilege.”
Despite good intentions, sceptics maintain that stiff regulations, tight budgets and tireless bureaucracy stifle public servants’ ambitions for making a real impact. Granted, there can be obstacles they must overcome when driving change. However, the proof is in the data…
Take the state of Pernambuco in Brazil for example: after the newly appointed government introduced a new education model, the region’s IDEB, Brazilian Education Quality Index, score rose from 2.6 in 2008 — one of the lowest rankings in Brazil — to 3.9 in 2015, which was among the highest scores. It’s success has meant that the policy is now being replicated in various states around the country.
3) Government is closed and secretive
Though confidentiality is crucial in the public service, the opaque exterior of government — along with tales of scandals and corruption — contributes to an underlying sense of suspicion and even mistrust among the public.
However, with the growing presence of open government initiatives, this perception is being challenged in many places.
As well as fighting corruption and increasing trust in government, the accountability and transparency brought about by open government data have a myriad of benefits for the quality of government services.
These range from building accessible justice systems and improving healthcare, to simply making the everyday lives of citizens easier by helping them to do things such as browse government services, find jobs or avoid traffic.
Of all the fields in need of greater transparency, procurement is high up the list. That’s why the government of Canada has just introduced open feedback mechanisms between government and industry which have enabled them to co-design procurement processes that are more effective for both government and service providers.
Governments are not only becoming more open with citizens, but are breaking down silos on all fronts, working together with businesses and other departments to form better policies.
4) Government is backwards on tech
The notion of government as technologically behind the times is a notion that — in itself — is becoming increasingly out of date.
From the UK’s Government Digital Service, to Estonia’s e-Residency and X Road — the project that has saved 1400 years of working time, the digital revolution is sweeping through governments all over the world.
And it’s happening fast. Contrary to the image of government playing catch up with the private sector, the public service has come a long way in a very short space of time: in the words of Roxburgh, “life is much faster in the Civil Service.”
Argentina’s latest success story is the perfect example of this: in just 65 days, the country created a new digital driving license from start to finish. The intervention will digitise 19 million licenses and is estimated to save at least £12 million a year.
5) Government doesn’t innovate
With innovation labs spreading all over the globe, governments are becoming more and more collaborative and experimentative in their approaches to tackling policy issues.
This could mean using creative approaches to respond to citizen needs: Delhi, for instance, have introduced a new scheme whereby government officials go directly to people’s homes in response to concerns over corruption and queues at public offices. Alternatively, it could involve harnessing new technologies to solve problems: in rural Africa, governments have deployed drones to transport healthcare supplies to remote communities. — Anna Goulden
(Picture credit: Unsplash)