Blog: How could COVID-19 shape institutional reforms and creation of a public-sector workforce of the future that accelerates delivery of the SDGs? 


On 13 May 2020, the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) starts its 19th session with a virtual meeting that combines two topical agenda items: Promoting effective governance and institutional reform to accelerate delivery of the SDGs [item 4], and Government and public sector workforce of the future [item 7]. Both themes are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and action on them will play a key role in the recovery.

What lessons can be drawn with respect to building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels from the unprecedented measures taken in response to the pandemic?

The Committee has looked at the central theme of the 2020 HLPF on accelerated action and transformative pathways from a governance and public administration perspective (E/C.16/2020/2). Its contribution to the HLPF, which will be formally endorsed during the meeting, recommends that accelerated action to achieve the SDGs calls for ‘fast-track’ reform initiatives based on innovative breakthroughs, combined with incremental reforms that target long-term, cumulative results. Accepting the need to innovate means the willingness to take risks – and benefit from the consequences.

Another transformative pathway to sustainable development concerns budgeting for the SDGs. Integrating the SGDs in budgeting may benefit from a shift towards performance-based budgeting, particularly since traditional budget structures or “line item budgets” may thwart, or at least not encourage, SDG implementation efforts.
At the same time, the Committee recalls that leaving no one behind will often require avoiding top-down approaches to local development and the establishment of focal points within communities to assess the extent of possible decentralization, value optimization and impact of national-local transfers. Last but not least, combatting corruption is a precondition of effective governance for the acceleration of implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

What are the risks to implementation of SDG 16 from these measures? Is the strong government paradigm harmful to efforts to leave no one behind? Could investment in digital government serve to counter any negative effects?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ability of many governments to take extraordinary steps quickly with a potentially transformational impact. It has also exposed the fact that the effectiveness of government has been eroded by privatization – for example of health systems. We might learn from this for the huge task of attaining the SDGs: only a strong government can work effectively with the private sector and civil society to make sustainability a reality.
Investment in digitalization was already a strategic priority before COVID-19 and will be even more important during the recovery phase. Artificial intelligence can be a powerful means to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda as well as to monitor progress towards all of the SDGs. It also brings about societal threats which have yet to be fully explored. The Committee’s paper on government and public sector workforce management in the digital era (E/C.16/2020/4) underscores that digital technology is transforming governments, government-citizen relations and public management. During this pandemic we are witnessing a faster rate of adoption of digital technology among some government agencies. It is crucial to maintain this pace so that services are more equitable, efficient, and effective.

What lessons can be drawn in shaping the public sector workforce of the future?

Governments are embracing digital technologies to achieve better governance. New practices enabled by information and communications technology are rapidly reshaping public sector workforce management. During this pandemic, many governments are practicing work-from-home policies and have issued flexible working hours. This reflects the ability to adapt and be agile for some governments but not for all. A handful of governments have responded well to the pandemic with the use of technology such as for tracking systems, information dissemination, and health services.
While the COVID-19 crisis has shown many positive impacts of digitalization, it also revealed where improvements are needed most. In some ways, inequality has increased between pockets of society, as well as between countries. In general, challenges remain on data security, privacy and the definition of property rights. These are issues that relate to democracy, human rights and the future of government. It should be ensured that no one is left behind and that such technological shifts are geared towards accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.