First, there was the political crisis that led to three general elections within two years, breeding a budget and cash flow crisis.
Then the Covid-19 crisis erupted and further escalated the previous two crises.
As if that were not enough, the proximity and collision among these government, budgetary, and health crises have intensified the ongoing decline of the public’s trust in the public service.
This is the irregular combination of intermingled, consecutive, and interrelated crises of the past three years that has become the chaotic terrain in which senior civil servants operate.
To boot, within this state of affairs, there is another exogenous complexity worth noting: as a matter of routine, senior civil servants operate in a structure that does not always facilitate the advancement of the policies they are responsible for.
First, every issue concerning the quality of life’s public is handled by more than one unit within a government ministry, in more than one government office within the civil service, in more than one agency within the entire public service, and often in more than one sector of the economy. However, the public system largely lacks a well-established culture of cross-boundary collaboration (XBC) that is based on the ongoing development and reinforcement of interfaces within and among units, offices, and sectors.
Second, senior civil servants must often contend with conflicts between the authority they wield and the responsibility they carry. The mere fact that senior civil servants are in charge of a specific field hardly provides them with exclusive decision-making authority – be those decisions small or big. Some decisions they make are at the very least contingent on consultation with, and often the approval of, a cadre of legal advisors, accountants, budget makers, and human resource managers, among others.
Finally, these challenges co-exist with inherent universal management challenges civil servants deal with, including, but not limited to, the following:
- a sense of loneliness common to senior levels of management,
- a constant pressure to prioritize needs,
- juggling among a multitude of stakeholders, and
- tensions across the political and professional ranks.
Given this reality, in order to adjust to the needs of a senior civil servant, the ability to cultivate learning by experience – to target senior civil servants in their surroundings by embedding learning into their routine – can be a game-changer. I believe one of the most interesting experiments is currently underway in the field of training, development, and support for senior civil servants to which I belong. It revolves mainly around this critical question: what additional and relevant assistance can be afforded to senior civil servants who find themselves facing ongoing crises that are characterized by extreme uncertainty and a permanent lack of resources?
Sitting in classrooms with the best lecturers and PowerPoint presentations, as illuminating as those may be, is no longer sufficient. Now is the time to move out of the familiar comfort space and to get beyond the classroom. Executive training, development, and support programs within what is called the VUCA reality, (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity,) should be intentionally embedded within the actual, lived work environments of senior civil servants, rather than remain exclusively in classrooms or training rooms.
With this renewed focus in mind, we at the National School for Leadership, Governance, and Management, have developed 15 training, development, and support programs, four of which I share below.
- Executive National Decision-Making Simulator
Similar to high ranking IDF officers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals, senior civil servants require a safe space in which to practice and experience challenges. The executive simulator will allow senior civil servants to experience performing managerial tasks in conditions of uncertainty, ongoing crisis, and lack of resources by simulating, imitating, or recreating the reality in which they operate. Currently, various case-study conflicts from the daily routine of civil servants are being gathered and documented for this purpose. In the near future, senior civil servants will use simulations to explore and practice these scenarios, through a wide variety of methodologies, including playing out scenarios with professional actors or colleagues. In addition, “serious gaming” digital simulations will also be used. The simulator will be used either by individuals or by groups and will offer several levels of challenge the users typically deal with: the system, key players in the system, and data.
- The Executive Gym
These are short-term, focused training sessions, offered as several daily sessions or as several consecutive sessions within a single day. These sessions are designed to enhance various executive skills among the service’s senior civil servants, formulated to allow for maximum benefit in minimum time, taking into account their most precious and scant resource: time. The Exec Gym allows senior public servants to focus on a set of crucial managerial skills of specific areas through a limited number of sessions, with the added value of connections and collaborations created among participants through shared learning, subsequently producing an interconnected network of influence spheres across the civil service.
- Plugging into Action: Reinforcing Cross-Office Interfaces
As mentioned above, the public system lacks a culture of cross-boundary collaboration, yet senior civil servants are expected to produce and/or reinforce cross-ministerial interfaces to better deal with challenges. To this end, three executive tracks were developed, targeting senior civil servants from offices across the service aiming to create shared “holding environments” for the different stakeholders through dedicated training programs, support for inter-ministerial teams, and methodological infrastructures that advance them towards finding solutions to challenges they encounter.
- Executive Onboarding Program
It is difficult to discern when someone is no longer “new” on the job. Is their orientation process measured in weeks? Months? A year? What we can be sure of is that newly appointed senior civil servants present us with the need for ongoing assistance with two intersecting areas: orientation and learning. To meet this need, we have developed an onboarding program for civil servants from various levels of seniority, with an emphasis on those who stand at strategic junctures. This is a differentiated and discrete program, which offers a choice of several options of support, based on an understanding that civil servants require a certain amount of flexibility and tailored solutions.
Again, these four examples are only a handful of the possible offerings for senior civil servants who are dealing with the crises of ongoing lack of resources and constant uncertainty. All programs can be performed either in a classroom setting or at the senior civil servant’s desk.
I truly hope that the ideas presented here have given you food for thought and will set in motion initiatives for training, development, and support for senior civil servants. When we can spring into action, through relentless trial and error to strive to adapt new methods for our current (and ever changing) reality, we will gradually empower leaders as agents of change in their environments, in order to develop the resilience to deal with future unforeseen challenges.
Get To Know The Author
Wexner Senior Leader Omri Dagan (2016) is Director of Israel’s National School for Leadership, Governance, and Management at the Civil Service Commission in the Prime Minister’s Office.