By Romero Kaddoum
If I learnt one thing from weeks of fieldwork on the Youth4Governance program, it’s that you must be ready for anything and continue moving forward, despite the obstacles you may face in pushing for change.
This was impressed upon me over the summer, after witnessing the commitment of the civil servants working in Lebanon’s public administration, and their vision of a digital transformation in the country’s provision of services to residents.
Through interviews with numerous officials from various ministries and state institutions, I found that civil servants, to a large degree do not view their job as merely a way to put food on the table. Rather, they are driven by their belief that serving residents requires a strong public sector, with highly qualified civil servants. Indeed, 81% of civil servants surveyed have university degrees, and 34% have master’s degrees.
True, our survey found that 63% of an already small group of junior civil servants want to find a job abroad, with that figure standing at 31% among older civil servants. The survey also found that 65% of respondents reported feeling demotivated. But both of these findings are hardly surprising, given the numerous, deep crises the country finds itself in.
So, the question is how to support the many civil servants who are still willing to put up a fight, and create an environment that releases their latent potential, which is clearly left untapped. This untapped potential is signalled by the fact that 44% of respondents reported having no terms of reference, and that 49% said they were unaware of their institution’s strategic goals. Preliminary insights from the General Inspection module on IMPACT, Lebanon’s e-governance platform, also show that 55% of public administrations do not implement any form of staff appraisal system.
Using readily available digital technologies was one standout solution proposed by interviewees to help them do their jobs and to revolutionalise public service. This does not just mean swapping pen for keyboard, but involves the wholesale re-engineering of the systems and processes that dictate how public transactions are done. In this re-engineering, digital technologies can be leveraged to create workflows that efficiently link diverse stakeholders, enable multi-directional communication, and allow transparent auditing.
The benefits of such a ‘digital transformation’ are enormous. Not only would residents be able to finish their transactions quickly and in the comfort of their homes – reducing the current frustration of having to physically wait in line for hours – but resources and services would be distributed fairly and transparently. No longer would there be a need for people to beg politicians or government officials to access services that they are entitled to.
Remarkable efforts have already been made by Central Inspection in this field, but more can be done to transform the public sector. IMPACT could be used to conduct a proper mapping of human resources in the public sector, for instance. This would enable decision makers to deploy civil servants in positions according to their skills, and see where employees are lacking training, or do not have terms of reference. This would also enable a review of civil service competencies and training programs, paving the way for them to be aligned with the missions and goals of each institution. Finally, a full, digitally-enabled assessment of the public administration would help in setting performance baselines and in identifying early pockets of success within the public administration to build on.
Opening the public sector up to scrutiny in this way would be particularly refreshing, as too often the language of anti-corruption is hijacked by politicians and public figures who use it to hide their lack of tangible action on this front. Indeed, this transparency would likely be welcomed by public servants, who in our survey placed combatting corruption among their top three priorities for improving the current state of the public sector. The only missing piece of the puzzle is the implementation of these solutions.
A fully-empowered Central Inspection is a pre-requisite for carrying out these critical tasks, which will build pressure on politicians to implement technical measures to improve the performance of the public sector. We must demand that Central Inspection is able to carry out its inspections without hindrance, and is able to access all necessary information to conduct these baseline studies. Time is of the essence, and if we do not find the political will, funding and appropriate logistical solutions to properly understand our public sector, soon enough our remaining public servants will surely be pushed to leave.