Is COVID-19 a chance to build sustainable surge capacity across the civil service?

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Crisis Response Crisis Response

Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the Bureaucracy Lab, a World Bank initiative to better support the world's public officials. The series includes companion blogs on surge capacity in the health care and on home-based work in the civil service.

Surge capacity to accommodate a sudden influx of patients has traditionally been important in health care. However, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) poses significant staffing challenges across the entire public administration. Governments need to ensure business continuity and accommodate the spike in demand on various public services, even while their capacity is curbed by the lockdown. Although most countries have already improvised some surge capacity, this increasingly looks like just the beginning, not the end of the crisis. As such, governments may need course correction to make their initial ad hoc responses systemic and sustainable over the course of a potentially multiphase pandemic.  Looking beyond the current outbreak, governments should ensure that the next emergency does not find them without a contingency plan for managing their human resources. 

As the World Bank is looking at ways to support governments with cross-government surge capacity, this blog proposes some measures for immediate crisis response, as well as to build long-term preparedness.

Three steps during the pandemic:

  1. A Workforce Management Taskforce should be established to conduct a rapid business continuity assessment that identifies critical functions and the corresponding staffing needs. For effective coordination, data access and enforcement, it is best to have the taskforce report directly to the crisis management team at the center of government.
  2. While some parts of the government are mostly shut down, other sectors will require more personnel, such as public security, customs, food security, and unemployment benefits administration. To mitigate such asymmetries, governments should maximize the redeployment of existing staff ahead of looking at new hiring . While staff re-mapping requires more coordination upfront, it ultimately reduces time that would be spent for onboarding and training. For instance, postal service workers may have a surplus of logistics skills, and teachers may be re-mapped to help desks. All agencies should report their staff shortages and surpluses to the taskforce that would coordinate the central pool of personnel and skills. Similar surge programs are already in place in Australia, Ireland and the United States
  3. Hiring new personnel should be the last resort for critical jobs that cannot be filled through reassignment. This could be the case for IT roles, as many operations and services are moving online. Such recruitment should happen under simplified procedures and on a temporary basis.

Three steps to stay ahead of the surge capacity curve in the future:

  1. An emergency HR strategy and implementation plan should be formulated based on an in-depth analysis that formally classifies the essential functions, maps out staffing needs and potential redeployment scenarios, and assesses existing competencies and training needs for critical functions. The emergency plan should lay out streamlined redeployment and contracting procedures, necessary rules and protocols, including the delegation of hiring authority and replacing ex-ante with ex-post oversight. Where needed, transfers and recruitment should be able to take place virtually – from the filing of applications to job interviews. The plan also needs to outline options for alternative work arrangements, including remote work. Staff identified for possible redeployment need regular training and simulation exercises. 
  2. For efficient surge capacity, the civil service could establish a stand-by Emergency Reserve Corps similar to those in the armed forces. This could consist of former and retired civil servants and university students, among other citizens. Members of the corps should be trained, participate in regular drills and stand ready to be deployed. Prior arrangements should be established for their insurance, hazard pay, and release and reentry guarantees from their employers. An experimental approach is the UK’s Surge and Rapid Response Team. Although it was not designed for a crisis of the current scale, it is a flexible team available for quick deployment across agencies in the event of a sudden spike in demand, primarily in frontline functions, such as help desks. Where surge capacity is unavailable or insufficient, hiring can be expedited by having at hand a reserve list of potential candidates. For instance, Belgium and the European Commission maintain such lists of those who have passed the centralized civil service entry exam.
  3. HR preparedness increasingly relies on GovTech, which needs a consistent approach through needs assessment, strategy, relevant ICT policies and tools. To address staffing gaps, a sound human resource management information system (HRMIS) will be critical for the collection of real-time, granular data (including on competencies and skills). Investments in IT tools, infrastructure and civil servants’ digital literacy is equally important to minimize disruptions in business continuity and enable virtual redeployment of staff to geographically distant critical functions (e.g., doctors providing online consultation country-wide).

COVID-19 will teach governments some painful but important lessons on optimizing their human resources.  Once the dust settles, these can be applied to make the civil service more agile both for crises and normal operations.

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