“Our budgets have been cut, everything was reprogrammed, and face-to-face formats have been suspended. We’re trying to move our programmes online, but we lack the knowledge on how to do it, and it is not easy for our learners to move to online learning, especially not for the more senior audiences.”

“We always knew that we would ultimately need to move online. This has given us the push we needed. The country is big, and face-to-face will never have the necessary reach. When connectivity is in place, online training allows us to reach participants from local administrations on remote islands who would never have been able to participate in face-to-face training.  But we have to diversify formats and bandwidth is an issue. For now, we mainly write emails and upload documents on websites. That’s not good enough.”

These are just some of the voices we heard from employees of public administration schools, who several months into the pandemic, shared reflections about the effects of Covid-19 on their work and the way forward.

Beyond these important voices, we at the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC), have been privileged to work with civil servant institutions and schools of public administration in various contexts. Five years into the creation of our  Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development, we have learned a few lessons regarding the needs and questions that should be addressed to help move public service to the next level.

Our takeaways suggest that, while the need for change is widely acknowledged among civil servants, there are still many doubts regarding the way forward:

Putting meaning behind buzz words

Although we have not formally assessed the level of awareness at scale, we have conducted Learning Needs Assessments (LNAs) before each capacity development initiative offered for public institutions. To date participants have reported a high degree of awareness about the existence of the 2030 Agenda as well as the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and related core concepts. At the same time, participants expressed a need to learn about the specificities of the Agenda to understand what is meant by “transformation” and “integrated approaches.”

Learning from peers

The LNAs also reveal, among other elements, a strong desire to learn about concrete country approaches toward integrated SDG implementation-particularly from countries whose experiences and conditions are comparable or relevant. Information needs are varied and shed light on how public institutions can be better supported.

To enhance the development of multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional policies, participants sought to gain information on the approaches to data collection and multi-dimensional situation analysis. Participants also sought more information about ways to strengthen whole-of-society and whole-of-government approaches. They also expressed a specific interest in ways for institutions to facilitate stakeholder engagement, nation-wide consultative processes on SDG implementation, and institutional mechanisms to foster coherence across ministries. Finally, participants sought additional information on approaches to financing the 2030 Agenda at national level, synergies between the efforts to deliver on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) toward the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Changing the status quo: leadership and behavior change

We picked up on another important capacity gap - the need for varied leadership approaches and behavior change within public institutions. In order to open spaces for multi-stakeholder engagement and participatory solutions, the Agenda requires vertical and horizontal coherence and a greater degree of agency for public servants. The status quo in public institutions presents a challenge, primarily because of the traditional top-down approaches that typically exist within bureaucracies. This requires fundamental changes in the opportunities that institutions provide to civil servants to devolve responsibilities and provide space for agency across the ranks and at all vertical levels of government. At the same time, such changes require a change in attitude toward public service, and a readiness to take risks and develop initiatives, within a space that is conducive for it. This conversation seems rather rudimentary still in many administrations.

Technical solutions versus integrated approaches

The pre-event surveys often also reveal an expectation to receive technical solutions, which could be applied and followed in order to improve on SDG implementation. The realization that sustainable development requires spaces for reflection about complex and ‘wicked’ problems, and ways to address them through pathways that are likely to increase synergies, seems to overwhelm participants in many instances. Many would like clearer guidance as to ways to concretely implement such approaches within the institutional constraints in which they are operate.

Increasing demand to move training for civil servants online

Finally, and mainly triggered by the current pandemic we observed a push for increased online formats. Schools of public administration need to find new ways of delivering their programs. While some schools are far advanced in their online training experience, the first reflex for many is often to replace face-to-face formats with online formats, based on the presential training's initial logic. While most actors initially experience the move to online learning as a negative challenge, it has become increasingly clear to many, that it entails a great opportunity in terms of reach and access to new groups of learners.  Through this modality institutions can rethink content and formats altogether and reconsider how training can be based on defined learning objectives. Instead of replacing the old, it becomes an opportunity to create and shape the new and, in this context, offer a chance to build back better.

Balancing act between agency and service

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments all over the world acknowledge that change toward sustainable development outcomes requires efforts at all levels of society. While national policies and legislation remain fundamental to establish a frame of incentives and regulations for all actors, change toward a more just, equitable, prosperous and environmentally sustainable society requires engagement and participation by stakeholders across the board. Public administrations have to play a role in transmitting and amplifying ideas and initiatives horizontally and vertically, top down, bottom up, within and between sectors.

In order to accommodate and integrate such action, foster networks of actors and allow local ideas to flow back into vertical administrations, the role of public servants has to change. National Schools of Public Service play a fundamental role in laying the ground regarding the topics and ways of working that shape public service. Through a collaboration with the German Development Institute (GDI_DIE), UNSSC has been working with a network of six schools of public service from around the globe through a variety of formats.

How UNSSC can support civil servants

UNSSC will run a series of training programmes between November 2020 and April 2021 on the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The programmes are being conducted in collaboration with the German Development Institute, and with the support of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

The overall initiative, titled “Building Back Better: Strengthening capacities of Schools of Public Administration in a Post-Covid - 19 World” will entail online and presential training of trainer programmes and present various opportunities for knowledge exchange and substantive inputs on topics of relevance to increase the agency of public servants as actors for change toward sustainable development.

For inquiries on tailored programmes for public officials and civil servants, please email sustainable-development@unssc.org.