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Future Civil Service: Meaningful Problem-Solving Through Greater Collaboration

“Give me 1,000 men, I will unplug Mount Semeru from its roots. Give me 10 youths, I will shake the world”. These are the words of Indonesia’s first President Soekarno. Most would take these words as representing only the power of youths, but we take these as representing the power of intergenerational, multi-sectoral collaborations to solve our nation’s challenges.

President Soekarno’s words are very pertinent today, given that Indonesia, its public sector included, is at a critical juncture. In the next decade or sooner, one-third of our civil servants will retire and our productive population will reach its peak. This coincides with a time when we are navigating mega disruptions, such as COVID-19 and digitalization.

As we seek to build back better and leave no one behind, it behooves us to support civil service transformations. Wielding authority over state budgets, policies, and law enforcement, our civil service is critical in solving future challenges.

We argue for a ‘talent management’ lens on civil service transformations, as people (or talents) are at the heart of any institution. We should support civil service as a workplace where people thrive through problem-solving underpinned by collaborations, across generations and sectors. The term “people” encompasses youths entering civil service and ascending as leaders, as well as senior leaders eager to leave a powerful legacy.

Public Sector at a Critical Juncture
This is a time of change. Even before COVID-19, countries globally were already navigating mega disruptions – digitalization, climate-linked disasters, and geo-economic tensions.

Amid these global changes, Indonesia is experiencing a demographic transition. The country’s population is now not only large, but also predominantly youthful – comprising “millennials” or “Generation Zs”, at 26% and 28% of the national population, respectively.

Indonesia’s public service, which employs 4.2 million people, is also experiencing this transition. In the next decade or sooner, one-third of civil servants (around 1.5 million people) will reach retirement age. This leaves more room for millennials and Gen Zs to enter and ascend as leaders in the civil service.

If left unmanaged, Indonesia’s demographic transition in the public service would just be that – a transition. Not a demographic bonus as often touted. Worse, it can create frictions.

How do we turn the ongoing demographic transition in our civil service into a “demographic bonus”? While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach, we argue for a ‘talent management’ lens, which renews our focus on people – the heartbeat of any institution.

Problem-Solving to Attract and Motivate Talents
Recruiting the best talents is a crucial element of talent management.

Are civil service jobs attractive enough for our next generation? Civil service jobs are traditionally perceived as attractive for providing stability and security. However, surveys from Korn Ferry, ManpowerGroup, and the World Economic Forum point to millennials and Gen Zs being primarily motivated by purpose. To be sure, stability and security remain important, yet not the primary drivers of motivation.

In 2022, Indonesia saw 4 million civil apparatus registrants, down from 4.2 million candidates in 2019 and 4.4 million in 2018. The 2022 number is also 1 million short of the government’s target of 5 million. Also recently, 100 or so newly-selected civil servants withdrew, citing among others a fundamental lack of motivation to join civil service.

We see it may be opportune to adjust the main recruitment messaging to how public service jobs allow meaningful problem-solving for the nation. President Joko Widodo has laid the foundation by launching a civil service employer branding campaign with the tagline “Bangga Melayani Bangsa” (Proud to Serve the Nation). With an array of problem-solving tools, from state budgets, administrative arms, policies and regulations, to law enforcement, civil servants are indeed critical in designing and executing solutions for our future.

Now if problem-solving for the nation can be a key motivation for next generation talents to enter civil service, how do we ensure the implementation in day-to-day practice amid generational gaps and emergent policy challenges?

Bridging Generational Gaps
The first step to meaningful problem-solving in civil service is to reduce generation gaps within civil servants. The conventional public service has unfortunately been associated with some stereotypes that clash with the often-cited characteristics of millennials and Gen Zs, namely lack of speed and rigidness. The pandemic has heightened the yearning for a more flexible and agile workplace, as found by Mercer’s global survey. The survey recommended workplace measures such as participatory decision-making, group work, and discussion forums.

In our view, civil service, as with workplaces in general, must fundamentally foster a culture of intergenerational trust and mentorship. A culture of mentorship promotes wellbeing, as it facilitates connections, learning opportunities, and the acts of ‘giving back’. These benefits would help reduce ‘resignations’, in both a physical and mental sense.

Trust and mentorship go both ways. Seniors should look for ways to transfer wisdom, experience, and, most importantly, opportunity to the next generation. Opportunity to speak up, be truly accounted for in decision-making, and perhaps even to ‘fail’ during the execution phase (within legitimate bounds). Meanwhile, the younger civil servants should bring forth their best experimentations, while being mindful of senior-level insights.

One helpful method to facilitate intergenerational trust and mentorship in problem-solving is ‘design sprints’, or short-term processes to answer critical questions. Over the course of three to five days, design sprints facilitate a user-centered analysis of issues, as well as the creation and testing of solution prototypes. ‘Design sprints’ are always run in group settings (both small and medium-sized), where everyone is treated equally as a potential idea source. These sprint sessions are facilitated by a neutral third-party to prevent biases or younger talents’ reluctance to speak-up in front of their seniors.

Catalyzing Collaborative Governance
The second step towards meaningful problem-solving in civil service is catalyzing multi-sectoral collaborations. Many of today’s issues are far too complex to solve by one entity alone. Skilled civil servants of the future must be equipped with the toolbox to design and execute strategic partnership opportunities, with private and community sectors.

One path forward would be to make a “Kampus Merdeka”-like program for civil servants. Civil servants identified as agents of change – both senior and younger – can be granted external ‘fellowship’ opportunities, either short-term placements or extended on-site visits in private or community organizations. These would provide the agents of change with first-hand experience with how other industries operate, as well as live, multi-sectoral networking opportunities across seniority levels. These agents of change can then share their learnings and serve as key mentors with their host institutions.

Solving Future Challenges, through Intergenerational and Cross-Sectoral Collaborations
Our civil service, and Indonesia more generally, sits at a critical juncture with demographic transitions and other mega disruptions. Transforming our civil service as a problem-solving playground for senior and younger talents will optimize civil service as a “highly-sought after job of tomorrow” that can anticipate and solve our nation’s future challenges. To be ‘fit-for-future’, our civil servants must not only be adept at routine public service delivery, but also anticipate issues and capture opportunities through greater collaborations.

This article was originally published by the Jakarta Post.
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