Responsive, Coordinated and Competent Public Service
Peter Pogačar, Director General, Public Sector Directorate Ministry of Public Administration, Slovenia
As Director General of the Public Sector Directorate, Peter Pogačar is responsible for the systemic regulation, organisation, operation and modernisation of Slovenia’s public sector. He is also Chief Government Negotiator for the public sector.
Responding to a Crisis
Although Slovenia has a strong tradition of public service, those outside the public sector did not always know or appreciate what we do. This changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. People realised that the public sector was continuing to provide essential services even during our lockdown: from hospital and healthcare to online education, document applications and so on. These were services we simply could not shut down, even during a crisis. It showed that our public administration could be resilient to shock.
The night the pandemic was declared in Slovenia, a new government had just been appointed. I had a new Minister who had just come in. Our measures to deal with the pandemic had to be written overnight.
My office’s mission was to provide public services, and we spared no effort. We worked through the night: we were on the line 24/7 with our Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social Affairs. We made arrangements and provided the legal, financial, and other incentives so civil servants could be reallocated to areas where they were most needed and could be compensated for doing higher-risk work. We worked with the trade unions and business owners to ensure that all this was done with the consent of the workers. It was good to see union leaders, who have a powerful voice in Slovenia, come together with us to reach the necessary agreements quickly and communicate these to their members.
A year later there have been legal experts and scholars looking over the technical implementation of these pandemic measures and how they could have been conceived differently. But at the time, they had to be written literally overnight. Indeed, it was a surprise to some people how committed civil servants were: we were working 18-hour days from home to get the provisions ready for government approval.
The pandemic has changed perceptions about the public service. In fact, we at the Ministry of Public Administration (MPA) have been working hard to improve the quality of our public sector.
The public sector-wide project for the implementation of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) tool is one example. The CAF model is based on the business excellence model of the European Fund for Quality Management and is intended for integrated quality management and development in the public sector. In the process of performing assessments using the CAF model, organisations learn how to improve the quality of their management and performance. Another programme we have, called Connectivity, Openness, Quality, aims to improve the management and transparency of public administration using new tools and methods, and greater interconnectivity. It will reduce the cost burden of using information technology systems in central administration, ensure their functional coverage, and optimise public sector business processes. One of the projects under this initiative is the national open data platform, OPSI (https://podatki.gov.si/), which provides free and easy access to open government data for any (profitable or non-profit) purpose.
Nurturing Public Sector Competencies and Talent
Competencies are another area of priority in our efforts to enhance the public sector. Four years ago, we established a framework of civil service competencies. What’s important is that these were developed from the bottom up, by civil servants. They were guided through the process to form a competence model, comprising core leadership and work-related competencies. The next project in the pipeline is the establishment of a Competency centre, which will provide systematic support for the use of the competency model, assist managers and HR services in personnel processes such as recruitment and employment, employee training and development, as well as succession planning and intergenerational cooperation.
When any of our 14 Ministries and 58 administrative units open a vacancy, they each have to conduct their own selection procedure, with their own criteria. The establishment of a Competency centre will help streamline recruitment, so there can be a unified entry point, with compatible standards across public agencies, including a psychological evaluation and so on. Ministries will then only be able to hire someone who has passed these basic entry requirements. This approach would also limit political influence in the selection process, so only those who are qualified, not just those with close ties to the politicians, will be able to take on positions in the public sector. Indeed, for the past 20 years, senior civil servants such as myself already have to be thoroughly evaluated by a special council before being appointed to office, for the same reasons.
Another advantage of having a competency framework is that it can make job rotations within the civil service much easier. Job rotations matter, because when people stay in one role for too long, they become an expert in that field, but cannot see the bigger picture. They can develop what is a problem in many public sectors: a silo mentality. To address this, some public administrations in Europe, such as the UK and France, have mandatory rotations. While Slovenia’s is too small to make rotations mandatory, we are still trying to increase them.
There is a real benefit to job rotations in the public sector. For 10 years, I was Director General at the Ministry of Labour, responsible for the labour market and pension system. When I came to the Ministry of Public Administration, I could use that experience in my work: I knew the system from another angle and also who to call at the Ministry of Labour, for example, to get things done.
Next year, we plan to introduce an information system that will support certain HR processes in the central administration. One of the modules provided within the information system is a form of internal labour market within the central administration. So civil servants will be able to choose to switch from say the Ministry of Public Administration to the Ministry of Labour, without requiring a new contract: because the Republic of Slovenia is still the employer. Using an app, they will be able to input their education and skills to see the roles they qualify for; organisations can also find people who are available, based on what competencies are needed.
Apart from unified and rigorous entry criteria, we are also raising the competencies of our people. An organisation is only as effective as its employees. Therefore, investing in employees, their training and education are some of the fundamentals for the success of an organisation. My directorate oversees the Administrative Academy, which trains civil servants. In the past, most of the training programmes were knowledge and content-based, focusing on the wage system and so on. We are now also emphasising training for development of soft skills, including digital skills. When the competency model is more established, we will be able to assess which competencies are lacking and emphasise that area of training.
We are also trying to change our work culture, which in the past has not valued lifelong learning. Civil servants over 45 don’t feel the need to gain any more training. One of my ambitions is to follow the Finnish example and implement several hours of mandatory training per month for civil servants, in any kind of skill. Besides, with online platforms, training no longer needs to mean an absence from the office.
This is also a matter of retaining people. Many civil servants leave once they fulfil their retirement conditions not because they lack knowledge of their area of work, but because they lack the current skills to make use of that knowledge.
Attracting and Managing Talent
One area in which there is room for improvement is our compensation, which is still based on seniority: older workers will always get more promotions and a higher salary than younger ones. Whereas in fact, quality talent is distributed across age groups. In my opinion, there is not enough room in our pay system for performance-based rewards: only 2% of gross salary can be performance-based.
That said, attracting talent is not just about pay. In many areas, we cannot compete with private sector wages. But there are other benefits we can offer. Despite popular perceptions, public sector work can be really interesting and diverse.
Attracting and retaining talent is also about career development and finding the right motivational factors that matter to people. We need to find out what else is attractive to Slovenians who want to do something for the country that is rewarding.
For example, we can help look after their life needs, such as housing in a relatively expensive city like Ljubljana. The stability of the civil service is still a draw: if a company shuts down you will lose your job but that is less likely in the civil service. There is better work-life balance overall, even though there are periods of intense work, such as during the pandemic lockdown. These advantages help at the entry level, but later we will need to build career plans based on their future goals, helping them to realise their ambitions. These are things we can do without placing a severe strain on our budget.
Of course, in the public sector you are also helping your fellow citizens with your work; you are earning an emotional salary.
One of the things about running a good institution is to have a good positive organisational culture and good working conditions. We should make the public service a friendly workplace that provides employees with necessary skills and training, as well as tools, equipment and infrastructure to work well. And in tough times, it is their co-workers and leaders who keep people going, who provide support and motivation.
The Role of Leaders in the Public Sector
When I give lectures to top managers, I always say that our main responsibility is not to type memos— others can do that—but to manage people. It’s our core job.
It’s also our job to act as a buffer between our people and the politics: we need to filter and protect our people so they can get the job done.
Leaders must listen. They must enable working environments where it is possible to try out new things and sometimes to fail in doing so. People working under a leader need to believe that they can make a difference, improve things.
Working in public administration gives me the opportunity to make systemic changes. That is also one of the motivating factors at my job—to be able to co-create the development and improvement of public administration governance. My current position enables me to influence the solutions for challenges in human resource management and development in the central administration.
In turn, my colleagues are the ones that give me the motivation that I need to continue the work in my position. We have a working environment where we support and learn from each other, not only to be better public employees but also to grow as people. And that is the true added value.
As I like to say: it’s all about the people.
Leaders must listen. They must enable working environments where it is possible to try out new things and sometimes to fail in doing so.Peter Pogačar, Director General, Public Sector Directorate Ministry of Public Administration, Slovenia
Co-Creating Future Talent Management Strategies For The Public Sector
The Ministry of Public Administration decided to tackle the challenges of the changing nature of work and an ageing population through anticipatory innovation with the guidance of the OECD Observatory for Public Sector Innovation.
Through a series of workshops, the participants, which included specialists from different organisations, were guided in using strategic foresight methods to envision what the future of the public sector in Slovenia will be in 10 years, what kind of HR management we want at that time and how we can prepare for this envisaged future now. This exercise led to a set of innovative proposals for the future.
An important aspect of this exercise was to ensure adequate and appropriate participation. Because this anticipatory innovation was mostly unknown to the majority of civil servants, effort had to be put into convincing them to participate, on top of their usual work obligations.
Feedback from the participants has been mostly positive, with many of them excited that they were trying out a new way of thinking and working.
Such exercises encourage working together across organisations and professions, helping to break down the silo mentality.