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Public Sector Strategy Round Table - Horizon-Scanning

Second day of program looks to the future and identifies challenges for the public sector

Participants in conversation at Session 576 In the Spotlight: How Can the Public Sector Excel Under Changing Dynamics?

The risks facing the public sector, the future of work, and the role of technology were among the topics for discussion as participants convened for the second day of In the Spotlight: How can the Public Sector Excel under Changing Dynamics?

In the program’s first plenary session, participants considered the challenges for the public sector in 2017 and 2030. The world is growing crowded, older and more urbanized. Participants heard the world population would reach eight billion by 2024. By 2050, meanwhile, two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban areas. Global inequality has tapered in the past three decades, and a global middle class is growing. Nearly 50 percent of this group is floating, however.

Online solutions have eased economic transactions, but digitalization has had an impact on jobs. Governments require assistance from corporations to help meet these challenges. UN member states are expected to use the sustainable development goals to frame their policies over the next 15 years, but an annual $2.5tn development investment gap currently exists. One speaker said governments should have the ability to embrace paradox and look at socially inclusive models for growth.

Trust remains an issue for governments around the world. If an administration gets too distracted by investing in technology, the needs of the poor are at risk of being overlooked. Rising inequality doesn’t always mean the poor trusts the government less, however. As one participant suggested, policies are in place which tax the rich and are invested in the poor. It’s the middle class who are also taxed that are left asking: What’s in it for me?

New Tools for Tomorrow’s World

After this plenary session, the conversation transitioned toward challenges for governments facing a rapidly changing digital revolution. Discussion opened with a focus on automation and algorithms, examining how the public sector can accelerate preparations for cognitive automation. Drawing comparisons to the evolution of the transportation industry, the speaker suggested ride-sharing company Uber could be a model for government innovation.
Participants were eager to discuss the issue of big data and the role of government data collection. The speaker noted while governments collect data on the same scale of private companies, such as Facebook, governments must work to gain the trust of citizens when storing and using that personal data. Of course, these technological advances will all contribute to an increasingly complicated cybersecurity landscape – one that will cost the global economy $6tn annually – leaving participants to consider what role governments have to address this issue and how.

Education for a New Age

After a coffee and tea break, participants reconvened to discuss what approaches are needed to prepare the next generation to adapt to a changing workforce. Participants learned how the government in Kenya made a commitment to embrace the digital economy. A Digi-school program was rolled out, and the government promised a laptop for every primary school student. The idea was to start training children from an early age to work with digital technology.

In Estonia, meanwhile, participants heard how the country’s economy had to be flexible and accommodate the changing environment. While Estonia has a 76 per cent employment rate, it is facing a challenge whereby the working population is decreasing each year by one percent. The educational system is producing positive results, but the question now concerns how to translate the results into what the labor market demands. Employees from various sectors are now beginning to receive additional IT training.

In classrooms across Singapore, children get taught learning techniques. They grow up knowing their education doesn’t finish once they’ve left school. The value of teamwork has become a central process in the education system and citizens are encouraged to live their lives with purpose.

Nevertheless, participants were reminded not every child will grow up to be an information analyst or an app-maker. Public education should be aware of this. IT skills are significant, but governments have a political choice. As one participant asked, “Do we have to automate jobs just because we can?” Participants agreed one method of preparing children for the future is to back parenting programs at scale.

The Future of Work

Participants soon moved into small table discussions to address the future of work and what might this mean for social mobility and cohesion. Each table was asked to consider implications of higher unemployment, inter-generational justice, fiscal revenues and social welfare costs, adaptability of the one percent versus the 99 percent, and “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of success.

Participants discussed their ideas for 20 minutes before sharing details with the rest of the group. Starting the conversation, one participant suggested the first industrial revolution had replaced muscles, the second industrial revolution had replaced the brain, and what remained now was the heart. Another participant countered this point, however, indicating the brain was an organ which worked very differently from a silicon chip.

One table looked back through time and hit upon the idea that societies have continually replaced jobs with other jobs. The speaker for the table suggested the global trends in employment numbers did not support the conclusion jobs are going away. Another table, meanwhile, asked whether it mattered if everyone was working in the future. Other participants indicated the individual is in a position to decide the future of work. If they are educated to be self-determined, they can identify their purpose.

Paying for Tomorrow’s World

In the final session of the afternoon, participants sat down for a discussion which circled on “Paying for Tomorrow’s World.” In among the exchanges, participants heard the difficulties that existed taxing people. One speaker suggested a share of the one percent of society were mobile, as were their assets. It's also complicated to implement effective taxation on huge corporations, as assets can be moved around.

The second speaker asked participants to consider how efficiency is defined in the public sector. They said they had looked at technical efficiency, or “doing things right.” This involved coming up with new, less expensive ways of doing things. Five key drivers were examined: the use of markets and competition, alternative delivery mechanisms, workforce drivers, technology and data, and the role of hard budget constraints. In addition to this question, the second speaker asked where countries had been finding challenges in this space. Participants discussed the ease of taxing physical goods as opposed to the dilemma presented by services which are now streamed online.

The discussion raised several more questions. How do we reshape the corporate debate moving forward? How do we determine what to tax - and where - in a digital landscape? How can lower income individuals have access to the same investment strategies as the wealthy? These questions - and more - will be considered further as the session continues.

Salzburg Global Seminar convened the sixth meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Round Table – “In the Spotlight: How Can the Public Sector Excel Under Changing Dynamics?” - in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and apolitical, and with the support of Chatham House. More information on the session can be found here.



Oscar Tollast and Nicole Bogart