Southeast Asia Needs High-Performing Public Sector to Beat COVID-19

Government workers are crucial to the effort to effectively respond to COVID-19. Photo: ADB
Government workers are crucial to the effort to effectively respond to COVID-19. Photo: ADB

By Hanif Rahemtulla, Bruno Carrasco

To respond to the challenges of the pandemic and deliver services effectively, a professional civil service needs to build the values, culture and skills required to respond to complex demands and challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the state to respond to crisis. The unprecedented shock in the real economy subsequent to the pandemic outbreak has put the public sector at the forefront of the response. Only governments can step in on short notice to mobilize and distribute large amounts of resources to respond to the urgent needs of a population. This most immediate response is aimed at ensuring a functioning and accessible public health system to provide minimum health care and contain the rapid spread of the pandemic.

This was followed by fiscal stimulus measures to contain a worsening economic outlook. To meet the COVID-19 recovery, governments require a high-performing civil service capable of improving citizens’ quality of life, ensuring service delivery and fostering inclusive and sustainable growth.

Countries in Southeast Asia operate with relatively small public sectors, which account on average for 15% of total employment in the region, compared to 21% in the OECD countries, according to our research.  At the same time, governments play a strong role in facilitating the development of the economy and society, according to the study, which benchmarked Southeast Asian countries to each other and to member countries of the OECD, which includes some of the largest economies and wealthiest countries in the world.

A key element related to the performance of the small but important public sectors in Southeast Asia is the use of incentives. The extent to which performance assessments are used in human resource management decisions is higher in Southeast Asia than in OECD countries.  Formal performance assessments are mandatory for almost all government employees. Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines integrate performance assessments into their human resource decision-making the most. Performance-related pay is also a common incentive in Southeast Asia as in OECD countries.

Among Southeast Asia countries, Singapore, Thailand and Philippines use performance-related pay the most.   However, both performance assessments and performance-related pay only work well as incentives for superior performance if they are implemented effectively. The behaviours they promote are also crucial for achieving their goals.  Performance incentives can be compliance-oriented, thereby limiting individual scope for action, or can be designed to enable and facilitate innovation and risk-taking. 

However, creating the right incentives is not sufficient; a high-performing civil service requires employees with the right skills, knowledge and experience to produce superior results.  In today’s fast changing environment marked by rapid digitization, employees also need to be continuously equipped with new competencies. Competency management is a high priority in Indonesia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Apart from Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, all countries in the region have a civil-service wide training strategy prioritizing executive leadership training and coaching.

Countries in Southeast Asia operate with relatively small public sectors.

Government performance is also strongly influenced by the quality and capacity of the senior civil service.  This leadership cadre operates at the interface of policy making and policy delivery, and provides a buffer between politicians and the bureaucracy.  Senior civil servants are expected to be politically responsive, have a deep understanding of the citizens they serve, and be effective managers capable of leading high-performing public sector organizations. In six out of ten Southeast Asia countries, human resource management rules and practices treat senior civil servants as a separate group, with greater career mobility and a performance management regime.

Our research finds that only Malaysia uses an examination early on in an officer’s career to identify potential senior civil servants.  By contrast, Indonesia allows external recruitment for all senior positions, and Philippines for a large share of senior positions. The seven other Southeast Asian countries identify senior staff based on career progression within the civil service.

Overall, Southeast Asia countries operate more centralized human resources management in their civil service than OECD countries.  Their choice of specific practices relate to historical and cultural traditions, a country’s level of development, and the role government plays in the economy and society. This logic also sheds light on the interaction of these practices and whether, together, they are able to promote the governments’ objectives for more prosperous and inclusive societies.

In responding to the policy challenges arising from this pandemic and to deliver services effectively, having a professional civil service is fundamental. While there is a mix of position-based and career-based systems in the region, these systems need to build the values, the culture and skills required to respond to complex governance demands and challenges.

A focus on identifying, cultivating and fostering talent throughout the civil service is essential. This includes a focus on the attractiveness of civil service jobs relative to the overall labor market, the quality and integrity of recruitment mechanisms, and the ability to inculcate public service values into private sector hires while at the same time learning from the new skills and techniques that they bring.