Read in magazine

Technology such as simulators can be used to accelerate the reskilling of public officials, and assist them to manage black swans like climate change and disruptive artificial intelligence, writes Busani Ngcaweni

It’s well established that an effective public service plays a significant role in transforming society. It has a critical role in the maintenance of order, provision of essential services to citizens, and of ensuring diligent management of public affairs. However, the challenges that public servants face in the world today are more complex than ever before, to the extent that the public policy training script is changing.

The world is changing rapidly, and public servants must be equipped with the necessary skills and capabilities to manage the new challenges competently. This is where the importance of returning to the simulator comes into play.

Simulators have been used in various fields for years to help professionals learn, practice, and perfect their skills. In the context of public service, simulators can help public servants build their dynamic capabilities to manage complexity and black swans like climate change and disruptive artificial intelligence.

These simulators can help public servants learn how to respond to unexpected situations, develop critical thinking skills, and hone their decision-making abilities. In short, simulators can help public servants become better equipped to manage the challenges of a complex world.

One of the challenges that public servants face today is managing complex international relations and geopolitics in this era of polycrisis. The world is increasingly interconnected, yet fragmentation is also a phenomenon. Thus, managing international relations requires a unique set of skills necessary for officials and diplomats to advance national interests while maintaining relationships with contending countries and regions.

Public servants must learn how to communicate effectively, negotiate skillfully, and build strong relationships with other nations that may be more dominant and uncompromising in their posture. As the sands of geopolitics are shifting rapidly (China has reshaped geopolitics in the month of March through delicate exercise of statecraft), simulators can help officials and diplomats develop these skills by providing them with a safe and controlled environment in which they can practice and hone their skills.

Another burden on the shoulders of bureaucrats is managing declining budgets and rising public expectations. In today’s economic climate, public servants must find ways to do more with less. This requires creativity, innovation, and strategic thinking. Simulators can help public servants learn how to think outside the box, identify new opportunities, and find innovative solutions to complex problems.

Development can be modelled with various lowest-cost impact options explored. By simulating this training officials can develop the resilience and adaptability needed to deal with change and uncertainty—always putting people first.

Digital transformation is a black swan for public officials today. The world has become dependent on disruptive artificial intelligence technologies. The public sector is not insulated from the risks of cyber security, plagiarism from language model tools and chat bots, and the opportunities of cloud computing, big data, and collaborative technologies.

Necessarily, bureaucrats should learn how to leverage technology to improve service delivery and efficiency. Countries like China and Singapore are global leaders in this regard. Palestine also has valuable lessons for using new technologies to automate the management of the public service including recruitment, assessment and selection of candidates for government jobs.

Simulators can accelerate the skilling of officials so they learn how to use new technologies effectively, understand the implications of digital transformation, and identify new opportunities for innovation. This is a priority given the increase in ICT budgets in the public sector. Officials should buy relevant, sustainable and cost-effective technologies, not nice-to-haves.

With growing calls for effective leadership, senior and executive managers are under the performance microscope. They are expected to motivate, inspire, and lead their teams and institutions to achieve exceptional results. Simulators can help managers develop the skills needed to set strategy and direction, build high-performing teams, communicate effectively with stakeholders, manage change and be citizen-centric. They can also help executives learn how to navigate complex political environments and build strong relationships with stakeholders.

Returning to training or the simulator can improve execution diligence by making people deliver outstanding results. Public servants who participate in simulator training are more likely to be diligent in their execution of tasks, resulting in better outcomes for the citizens. They are also more likely to be proactive in identifying and addressing problems before they become crises, which can save time, money, and resources.

That’s a well established practice in aviation, where constant return to the simulator is compulsory. In the United States we have seen companies like Accenture introduce simulator and virtual reality technologies to enhance the training of social workers.

The challenges facing public servants today are complex and ever-changing. To meet these challenges, they must be equipped with the necessary skills and capabilities to manage them effectively. Returning to the simulator can help public servants build their dynamic capabilities to manage complexity and black swans like climate change and disruptive artificial intelligence, manage complex international relations and geopolitics, manage declining budgets and rising public expectations, manage digital transformation, and be effective as leaders of departments and institutions that have employees who must improve performance.

By returning to the simulator, public servants can become better equipped to meet the challenges of our complex world, deliver exceptional results, and ultimately, serve their citizens diligently.

Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

This article originally featured on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.