Research firm forecasts top trends in 2022 for public sector workforce

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More people are teleworking permanently, more paperwork is undergoing automation and there is more adoption of the latest cybersecurity strategies. Those are among the top trends for public sector employees for 2022, according to Forrester Research, a leading prognosticator. For more, Forrester Vice President Rick Parrish spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Rick, good to have you back.

Rick Parrish: Hey, good to be here.

Tom Temin: And in this study, you’re looking at governments worldwide, correct, and not just the US federal government?

Rick Parrish: That’s right.

Tom Temin: Well, what are some of the other countries? I imagine they’re similar Western democratic.

Rick Parrish: Sure, we’re looking around the world. Actually, the scope of our predictions for 2022 is the global public sector at the the national level, mostly developed or developing countries. So certainly North America, Western Europe of it all, but also the very large, in many cases, very technologically advanced Southeast Asian countries or Eastern European countries as well.

Tom Temin: And I imagine the pandemic pretty much had similar effects on all of them, regardless of the particulars of their system.

Rick Parrish: Oh, it certainly did. The saying for the past year or so has been that COVID has driven everyone’s digital transformations. And that’s the same in the public sector as it is in the private.

Tom Temin: And let’s talk about the hybrid worker situation, the place where people do government work, because that’s always been thought of pretty much you got to be in the office, except for maybe a few people are allowed to telework, that seems to have permanently changed according to your prediction.

Rick Parrish: Absolutely. If we think just about the US at the high point of the lockdown last year, about two thirds of US federal employees worked remotely. Down a bit since then, of course, but again, if we look globally, we’re looking at 1/3 of global civil servants, becoming hybrid workers permanently from here on out. And that’s a huge increase from where it was prior to the pandemic.

Tom Temin: And as you say, you looked at a lot of different nations, United Arab Emirates, Malta I see cited here, of course, the United Kingdom, New Zealand. And in some ways, the United States might have been a hair behind some of those countries with respect to the availability of broadband and the infrastructure needed to support that number of remote workers, which extended to industry also.

Rick Parrish: That’s definitely the case. There are certainly some countries like New Zealand, for instance, or UAE, others, in which public sector employees have been working from home at a greater rate for some years. And there’s any number of barriers to that in the US broadband, as you say. Although our research and others have shown that one of the largest barriers to more public sector employees working from home in the US is actually cultural issues, workplace culture, managers just wanting their employees in the office where they can keep an eye on them. And that has been one of the biggest hurdles, even more so in many cases than technology in the US.

Tom Temin: And so therefore, you’re predicting that about a third of workers for the public sector in these nations will continue to be hybrid for good. And how does the United States stack up there? Do you think it’s going to be 1/3, or even more than 1/3?

Rick Parrish: In the US in particular, 1/3 is really a minimum for countries like the US, the UK, other Western European countries, as well as some of the more technologically advanced APAC countries as well, it’s really a third when we look at it as a global average.

Tom Temin: And in your observations, I wonder if you have a sense of what might be the effects of people that always have to be on the job, say they have an outdoor type of work, a forest ranger, or they are a border agent, someone like that where place of work is inseparable from the work itself — is there going to be tension there do you think?

Rick Parrish: There may be some, but in reality the 1/3 of global civil servants that work hybrid permanently, these are mostly going to be what we call knowledge workers, folks who work in offices, they’re not doing — they may be doing some field work, but that’s not the main part of their job. If they’re not out patrolling as a key part of their job, it’s mostly going to affect those sorts of workers where place of work matters very little.

Tom Temin: Alright, we’re speaking with Rick Parrish. He is the vice president at Forrester Research. And I wanted to talk about the finding on robotic process automation, RPA. That seems to be creeping up for the amount of work that it does on behalf of people that otherwise push paper.

Rick Parrish: Yes, it is. It’s been creeping up for a couple of years now. And countries like the US and others have consciously been pushing it. In fact, the 2021 US federal budget actually has about 30 initiatives specifically to boost robotic process automation. The goal of this here isn’t to eliminate workers, the goal is to eliminate repetitive low value tasks so that workers can focus on the things that humans do well, rather than filling out rote forms, moving files around and stuff like that. So sometimes folks hear something like 10% of government administrative workload executed by RPA and they think, oh does that mean cutting 10% of government employees? No, no, certainly not. What it means is, you get to actually focus on the stuff you want to do, rather than pushing paper.

Tom Temin: But 10% doesn’t seem like all that much, given how long we’ve had RPA around. What’s keeping it from being adopted faster do you think?

Rick Parrish: The technologies have had to mature. That’s certainly been the case. There are cultural issues, workplace culture issues, there’s issues of contracts, people, employees being worried about the effect on their employment. And then of course, that brings contract negotiations and the politics in the play of employment numbers and such. Also there have been a lot of missteps, as government organizations have tried to implement RPA over the years. One of the trickiest and most damaging is one out of Australia. It’s called the Robodebt scandal, where an Australian Social Services Department at the national level basically relied on RPA to figure out which individual people had been overpaid benefits, and then to automate the process of trying to claw back those minutes.

Tom Temin: Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

Rick Parrish: Exactly. And anything that could possibly go wrong did. And so it’s been a years long, massive scandal, caused any amount of problem for individual people, for the government department, for the Australian government in general. And that’s just one high profile scandal, there’s been lots of flubs. And so it’s been a process of not just maturing the technology, but maturing the best practices, the change management of it all. And we know a lot more about that now than we did just a few years ago. So it’s time for things to start maturing.

Tom Temin: And yet somewhat ironically, you note here that the anemic government, it itself will account for failure to spend 20% of stimulus funds globally. So in other words, the systems that are in place to disperse these funds, according to whatever new policy is passed for stimulus is sitting in treasuries.

Rick Parrish: That’s exactly it. Over the past couple of years, a lot of governments have done a really good job in trying to get their own IT houses in order, largely in response to the pandemic, of course. And one of the intentions behind getting their IT houses in order is it takes a lot of government it to push through on the spending of stimulus programs, there’s a lot of money, it has to be sent in different places, there’s a lot of tech stuff that has to happen to make these stimulus programs go. And unfortunately, that doesn’t go perfectly. And so that’s why we landed on the term anemic, its weak government IT, still better than it was but not as good as it needs to be. And that means just a lot of sand in the gears.

Tom Temin: And it means also not merely a failure to disperse all the funds as required by statute, but also a inability to have a really good view of oversight, that it’s all being spent correctly.

Rick Parrish: That is definitely the case. Waste, fraud and abuse is always a major concern in government. And it’s always very high profile when it happens. And of course, it’s always happening. There’s no way to stop all of it. But a better government, it can stop a lot of it, while still getting the right programs implemented a lot faster.

Tom Temin: And of course, the big issue facing so many governments and large organizations is the rise in ransomware. And so what does Forrester see, what did your research show that governments will be doing with respect to cybersecurity in the coming year?

Rick Parrish: Sure. What we see is that at least five more national governments will adopt what’s called a zero trust technology architecture. The US was the first national government to officially adopt this zero trust architecture last year, and we see at least five more national governments following it officially adopting zero trust. Now, that’s a total of six, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But zero trust is a major innovation in cybersecurity, and six is a lot more than zero. So that’s actually a big innovation. And this is a sort of thing that not just changes government’s cybersecurity posture, but can change the cybersecurity posture of an entire economy. Because when a national government requires a zero trust architecture, that means that businesses that want to do business with governments have to adopt a zero trust architecture. And so that cascades throughout the economy, it’s one of the major ways in which governments affect societies is by embracing a certain standard that then cascades throughout.

Tom Temin: And who are the other five governments?

Rick Parrish: Well, that’s trickier to determine, but chances are these will be close US partners, like Five Eyes countries, for instance, the UK, Canada, etc. Although I certainly wouldn’t rule out some of the other very large technologically advanced APAC countries, a Malaysia or an Indonesia. We don’t often think about these countries when we think about high tech countries, but these governments are digitally very advanced.

Tom Temin: And let me just ask you one final question. Did you look at Mexico? That’s a government that doesn’t often come up as much in these discussions, and Mexico is a big country, it’s 100 million people. And what is the status of their technological advancement in their general ability to oversee their programs in Mexico? Do we have a sense of that?

Rick Parrish: Sure. We do have a sense of that. And the short answer is better than we usually think. The Mexican government is better than we usually think it is at things like digital transformation, cybersecurity, etc. However, it is not among the leaders, it’s mired in a lot of the same problems that every other country is mired in, everything from acquisitions, regulation problems, to overblown implementation to a lack of understanding of best practices. So the Mexican government, not on the leading edge of any of this, but certainly not the outright laggard that we might expect. Middle of the pack, let’s say.

Tom Temin: All right. And I guess let me ask you this about one more nation then. Well, I’ve got you, India, a billion and some people.

Rick Parrish: Yes. And pushing hard for digital transformation in its government. And that’s been controversial, of course, right. There was the digital currency issue from a few years ago that still reverberating throughout India, they are closer to the leading edge than a government like Mexico. However, they are mired in a lot of implementation problems, because it’s a much more federated, let’s call it, technology environment in the Indian government than say in the Mexican government. Many more centers of decision making, many more centers of implementation, which makes the coordination that much more difficult, because there’s so many different competing interests. And I’m not talking about the political level, I’m talking about the working public sector level.

Tom Temin: Yeah, interesting, because they have a really big workforce in the public sector. I mean, they have that kind of colonial legacy of Great Britain, very large standing civil workforce.

Rick Parrish: And they certainly have the technologies to implement this stuff. And they are, the permanent hybrid work, the RPA, working toward better cybersecurity standards. They’re on their way, they’re just not on the leading edge of it.

Tom Temin: Alright, well, lots to think about. Rick Parrish is vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Rick Parrish: Thanks so much, good to talk to you.

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