Home-based work in the public sector: 8 immediate recommendations

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Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the Bureaucracy Lab, a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.

In response to the coronavirus, many public administrations have transitioned rapidly to home-based work (HBW). According to preliminary data – part of the Bureaucracy Lab’s ongoing effort to monitor global responses to the pandemic – 136 countries have implemented some form of HBW for public sector employees.  This switch poses new challenges and novel constraints for millions of public officials across the globe, some of whom are working to fight the impacts of COVID-19 while others are continuing the normal work of government. 

As the crisis continues to evolve, public administrations must enact immediate measures to help public officials perform as effectively as possible. Short-term crisis response measures are critical for continuity and agility in a time of tremendous demand on governments.

1. Strengthen existing digital infrastructure for remote service delivery

To facilitate citizen access to services during HBW, governments should channel service requests to online options  where these exist; strengthen digital infrastructure to ensure accessibility, functionality, and security of online services; and pursue additional digitization of government functions where feasible. Cameroon, Costa Rica and Uganda, for example, have allowed public officials to use video conferencing to collaborate and interact with citizens.  These shifts will help to fulfill service delivery needs while allowing public officers to work meaningfully from home. In the medium-to-long term, The World Bank’s GovTech Global Partnership can provide governments with a suite of services to advance strengthened digital governance. 

2. Implement exceptional regulatory procedures for remote service delivery

In tandem, governments should implement exceptional regulatory procedures that avoid direct human interaction and paper documentation to fulfill service delivery. Approval processes, decision-making authority, verification systems, staffing availability, and incentive structures should be reassessed and modified to the extent feasible to facilitate citizen access to services. Governments may consider, for example, extending decision-making authorities and operationalizing electronic signatures.

3. Ensure IT resources and literacy for public officers

Governments should ensure, to the extent feasible, that all public officers have access to an internet connection and IT equipment, including laptops and other devices. Complementary digital literacy training is key, particularly in rural areas and for more senior public officials who may lack prior experience with digital tools. IT resources and literacy play an important role not only in facilitating public officers’ access to documents and systems, but also in fostering organizational communication. Establishing and strengthening virtual connectedness is now more important than ever for team morale and public sector productivity. 

4. Mitigate IT-related corruption and security risks 

In parallel, governments should set guidelines to mitigate corruption and security risks associated with HBW, such as abuse of electronic signatures.  INTERPOL has reported a significant increase in cybercrime attacks against government organizations and facilities in the COVID-19 era, underscoring the need for vigilant implementation of data security measures. Governments may consider making records of IT equipment borrowed by public officials, prohibiting family members’ use of organizational equipment, and limiting the use of home printers for confidential documents. 

5. Flatten the hierarchy

While public administration is typically marked by a considerable degree of hierarchy, command-and-control cultures do not lead to high performance for virtual teams. Instead, flatter structures fit better with telework. Managers should foster shared team leadership and collaboration, and avoid imposing excessive policies and reporting procedures to track public officers’ activity. While monitoring and metrics serve a purpose, high levels of remote oversight have been shown to diminish worker trust, morale, and productivity

In harnessing the impetus for autonomy during HBW, managers and organizations can catalyze meaningful long-term change : even in non-crisis periods, autonomy in the public sector breeds higher productivity and gets the job done better

6. Facilitate connection and collaboration

During periods of public sector HBW, organizational commitment decreases and professional isolation increases. What’s more, isolation can lead to absenteeism and poor judgment. Forging connection between teams can help reverse these effects: managers should aim to develop interaction between team members and conduct regular check-ins to maintain communication between public officers. A HBW environment that integrates high task interdependence among teams can enhance trust, forge a sense of unity, and encourage knowledge sharing. 

7. Allow for flexible schedules

Governments should provide public officials with flexible scheduling options, which cultivate autonomy and foster productivity. Such flexibility also helps level the playing field, as the experiences of HBW vary by gender and family structure. Relative to men, women have been shown to experience lower concentration and motivation during HBW periods, a phenomenon linked to their greater share of household responsibilities. In the COVID-19 era especially, we can expect the burden of care – both for children out of school and for family members falling ill – to fall disproportionately on women. Flexible schedules that accommodate heterogeneous employee needs can help alleviate this strain, protect mental health, and improve morale. 

8. Make way for intermediary solutions

Many public administrations around the world may lack the infrastructure or connectivity to immediately and exhaustively implement these solutions. Where a full adoption of HBW and these recommendations is not feasible, governments should seek out intermediary solutions. For example, if public officials can send emails from home but don’t have a secure file sharing system, governments may recommend that they work primarily from home and go into the office once or twice a week. If some public officials have internet connection or access to a laptop at home and others do not, agencies may consider reallocating tasks within teams and units to enable remote work flow. 

As COVID-19 tests the strength of public administrations around the world, it impels them to innovate, streamline, and flatten hierarchies as never before. In many cases, these short-term measures may require low immediate investment in infrastructure. In all cases, they lay foundations for enhanced public sector productivity far into the future. Governments must act now – quickly and nimbly – to adapt their digital, legal, and organizational systems. Doing so will not only strengthen public administration today, but also build its resilience for tomorrow. 

Join the Conversation

Romain Guéléo NDOUBA
April 30, 2020

To facilitate citizen access to services during HBW, governments should channel service requests to online options.

Solomon Gebreselassie Melka
April 30, 2020

Dear Patricia, this sounds great and the measures are commendable. Since most of government officials in developing countries like Ethiopia have limited literacy there has to be a quick win solutions so as to implement HBW during the lockdown. It would be great to find a solution/ scheme which supports the officials and it will not only enhance HBW but also ensure digitization public service endeavors in the coming future. Many thanks !

Patricia
June 10, 2021

Dear Solomon, indeed, digital literacy training responses are important not only for short term business continuity but also for longer term capacity-building within civil services. https://blogs.worldbank.org/governance/ensuring-state-continuity-during… also touches on this point. In the medium- to long-term, https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/governance/brief/govtech-putting-peo… fosters the capacity of governments to leverage technology for public sector transformation.

Dan Pabellon
April 30, 2020

Dear Ms Paslov, thank you very much for this very timely, highly relevant, and what I am sure will be widely helpful discussion of the realities and challenges facing governments around the world. However, for my education, kindly clarify the difference, if any, between the terms “Home-Based Work” or “HBW” and “Work-From Home” or “WFH”? Thank you for your reply and kind indulgence.

Patricia
June 10, 2021

Dear Mr. Pabellon, thank you for your kind comment. To clarify, for the purpose of this blog, there is no distinction between the terms.

Sylvester O. Obongo
April 30, 2020

Dear Patricia,

Thank you very much for sharing your views on emerging practices from the COVID-19 experiences. It is interesting how circumstances can push through reforms in the public sector which have for a long time been seen as not a priority especially working from home - or Home Based Work. I think the adaptation curve is steeper in developing countries where working from the office, is still more entrenched.

Having said that, I would wish to also observe that working on-line- with all its challenges in the developing is more suited for transactional services- issuance of licenses, pass-ports , paying of revenue etc. There are some services which would still require face to face presence in the office. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 has pushed many countries to think outside the box. As a Public Service Commission, recruitment is one of the major functions which has been consuming a lot of time. The social -distancing and other COVID-19 related restrictions has made the Commission consider seriously about conducting online interviews, something the Commission could have considered even 5 years from now.

Apart from the above mentioned what important lessons has COVID-19 impacted on Public Administration in Kenya?

1. The country needs a strong Public Service: It is public servants who have been at the forefront of the fight to contain COVID-19 especially health workers. Public servants have been expected to provide data on trends, maintain security and ensure implementation of all related measures that have been put in place. A strong public service capable of mobilizing fast to respond to emergency like this is therefore crucial;

2. Related to the first one - is the importance of capacity building to ensure public servants have requite skills that can be utilized in such times, data collection and analysis skills have been of paramount importance. Thus in addition to the hard technical skills in the respective areas - from engineering ability to adapt existing technology and converting them produce appropriate equipment has been clearly manifested as essential. It is only when these skills are resident in public servants - that they can be used to benefit the public at affordable cost, otherwise the government must be ready to purchase the output at commercial rates when provided by the private sector. Other supporting skills such as Communication and PR skills have also come in handy.

3. Leadership- The Public Sector in many ways has been the coordinator of all programmes aimed at containing the COVID-19 Pandemic. Previously the public service has been emphasizing organizational leadership skill- which are aimed at attaining organizational performance and efficiency. COVID-19 has brought to light implementation of actions requiring intervention mechanisms which do not rest on recourse to the authority and sanctions of government. The most important leadership characteristic has therefore emerged to be the ability to negotiate and persuade to achieve the optimum output from the increased complexity of relationships within the network actors involved in fighting the pandemic.

From organizational focus in the COVID-19 circumstance success is brought about not by strong management skills but by enablement skills, which are the the skills required to engage partners collaborating horizontally in a network bringing multiple stakeholders together for a common end in a situation of interdependence.

Sylvester O. Obong'o, PhD
Director | Performance and Service Delivery Transformation
Public Service Commission,
Kenya

Patricia Paskov
June 10, 2021

Dear Sylvester, indeed, the adaption curve to COVID-19-induced changes in service delivery and governance is certainly steeper in developing countries where infrastructure is not as firmly in place for digital governance and home-based work. As you note, the role of government is particularly salient during this time as civil services are tasked not only with continuing services that are critical to state functioning, but furthermore with responding to and recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. The pressure is high and hopefully serves as a catalyst for positive long-term change in public administration functioning. Thank you very much for sharing the lessons learned in the Public Administration in Kenya in the COVID-19 era. You may find this initiative also of interest: https://blogs.worldbank.org/governance/how-public-service-surveys-can-s…

Camille Caliso
April 14, 2021

Dear Patricia,

This is an insightful article, especially that work-from-home will most likely be part of public sector organisations. But I think, arguably, public services are not that amenable to work-from-home arrangement. May I know if there is a study from the Bank which looks into the quantifiable outputs per job function which can be produced under the work-from-home arrangement? We are currently doing a study which estimates the impact of work-from-home arrangement on the productivity of public sector employees in the Philippines.

Thank you.