The great HR pivot - 4 big changes for Government

By Yun Xuan Poon

We look at tech that can help virtual hiring, the new skills HR is prioritising in potential hires, and the importance of mental health support.

As Lampedusa famously wrote in his novel The Leopard, which examined the Sicilian rulers at a time of unprecedented turmoil: ‘For things to remain the same, everything must change’.

And so it is for governments, which must still continue hiring, training and managing staff, and operating during the pandemic. For them to do their job at the same standard as before, everything must change.

Recruitment is at the forefront of this trend. Governments are hiring to augment their skills, from temporary health workers to older employees returning. But the rule book has been totally torn up by public health restrictions. We look at four ways the pandemic has changed recruitment and the future of HR.

1. Recruiting with AI

Government agencies recruiting directly to tackle the pandemic, but every role is being overwhelmed with applications. AI is a useful tool here, and is already being deployed in advance of the pandemic.

The Asian Development Bank has built an AI chatbot that asks candidates questions to find out if they are qualified for a role before they are granted an interview, Ozzeir Khan, Director of the Bank’s Digital Innovation and Architecture Division told GovInsider. The bot then fills in the form for candidates, shortening the process from three days to an hour.

The British Government, meanwhile, uses tech that combines AI with Behavioural Science to anonymise applications and help recruiters find the most qualified candidates - without bias. The BeApplied tool then helps schedule the interview with the best qualified candidates.

Once hired, going digital can make paperwork quicker. GovTech Singapore’s Open Government Products team uses a software to automatically send out a digital contract which the candidate can sign online, shares GovTech Singapore’s Head of People and Culture at Open Government Products, Rahul Daswani. “We’ve had people sign it within 7 minutes. You’ll never be able to do this with a paper-generated contract,” he adds.

2. New skills being prioritised

With such drastic changes to the way we work, new skills are being prioritised by HR. Soft skills such as agility, adaptability and resilience have become “even more important” now, says Serene Chiang, Workforce Singapore’s Director of the Human Resource Division. The agency is keeping an eye out for these traits in new hires, “on top of the knowledge, skills and attributes that we usually look for in a particular job role,” she adds.

The UK Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor has written of wanting to hire “super-talented weirdos” to shake up government. “We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole,” he said. They will work alongside exceptionally skilled mathematicians, computer scientists, and economists in a new ‘skunkworks’ where they will work in flexibly-structured teams cutting across departmental silos.

Self-management is another valuable skill, notes Daswani. “In an environment where you're working virtually, you need to manage your own time well.” Employees need to have a good sense of how much work they can complete, and be proactive in letting supervisors know early when they aren’t able to meet a deadline, he says. The “ideal state” would be to have a personalised dashboard of tasks so employees can help one another out when a task is falling behind, he adds.

Employees should also be aware of how their communications can impact efficiency and teamwork in a digital office. When using online messaging platforms, consider: “When do you tag people? When do you do one line versus multiple lines? Is it going to irritate people if I type like one line by one line?” Daswani asks.

Governments will also need people with the ability to reach to communities and build wider networks, adds Rainer Kattel, Professor of Innovation and Public Governance at UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. “This is where I think the governments that understand their challenges will invest.”

GovTech Singapore has done just that. Along with the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office, it held a series of video sessions where agencies shared their Covid-19 challenges, ranging from mental health support to contact tracing, and invited the tech community to share their ideas and build prototypes.

3. Training staff with Computer Games

Onboarding and training staff can be tricky when questions can’t be answered in person, but game-based learning platforms can help to bridge the gap. Workforce Singapore is using such platforms to bring “a new dimension to our staff engagement efforts”, says Chiang.

Policy gaming isn’t new in Singapore’s public service. The nation’s Civil Service College has designed role-playing games to help civil servants understand the motivations of stakeholders.

Games can be a useful medium for exploring “complex and subtle issues, in order to discover hidden concepts and buried factors, or to reveal connections and interactions that a conventional analysis would not be able to do”, wrote Peter Ho, Singapore’s former Head of Civil Service. “This can reduce surprise and improve readiness,” he explained.

For instance, the Civil Service College built a game to help civil servants understand the principles behind financial prudence and public accountability in procurement. The Ministry of Manpower has also created a game that simulated work in three future scenarios to help public officials enhance existing manpower policies, Ho wrote in Ethos.

4. Motivation and mental health

“Keeping staff engaged and motivated would be one of our biggest challenges” amidst the pandemic, shares Workforce Singapore’s Chiang. Managers need to find new ways to assess employee performance, she adds.

One way could be to do peer evaluations, instead of only manager reviews. GovTech Singapore’s Open Government Products unit has adopted this method of measuring progress to encourage cooperation and communication within teams.

But it’s not all about productivity. Mental health is important in a pandemic. Isolation has stripped employees of the social cues that help them navigate interactions and meetings, and this has led to increased anxiety and paranoia while working from home, wrote The Financial Times.

This can be detrimental for team performance. Psychological safety - a shared belief that team members can ask for help and bring up concerns without being derided - is one of the most important factors for performance, says Karen Tay, a director in the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (Prime Minister’s Office).

Constantly affirming team members can go a long way in a remote work environment, she wrote in GovInsider. Workforce Singapore has made available professional counsellors to help staff deal with stress and anxiety in this period, Chiang says.

The pandemic has driven change in every aspect of HR management, from processing applicants, to training staff, to engaging teams and boosting morale. Agencies will need to be creative in introducing new ways to support employees in these strange, stressful times.