Last week, while I was waiting to take off for London to meet clients, knowing that I would have to deal with a 24 hour strike of the London subway, our pilot announced that take off is delayed due to a strike of air traffic controllers in France. Speaking of which, I also knew that the subsequent Saturday I would chauffeur one or two of my co-keynoters to Cannes, as they flew to Milan rather than Nice, to another strike announced in France. So weird that Italy, for decades the stereotypical place for lazy workers always on strike, is offering safe harbor to deal with strikes elsewhere.
However Italy and other countries will not be immune either. Public spending cuts are causing and will continue to cause pain for hundreds of thousands of public sector employees, as their cost is seen as a major contributor to public debt. We have already seen the potential for civil unrest in Greece. While people in different countries have different ways of reacting to bad news and asking for change, the potential is high for significant, long-lasting disruption to public services in Europe and other parts of the world where economic recovery remains sluggish and budgets are tight.
Strikes and protest are only one face of the coin. The loss of knowledge, enthusiasm, sense of duty are more insidious, longer-term challenges. Government workers at all levels have traditionally traded lower salaries than in the private sector for greater job security and – for many – the satisfaction of contributing to the greater good. What else would keep a teacher teach, a doctor work full-time in a public hospital, a CIO lead IT in a government agency, an engineer work as a city planner, and so forth?
With job security declining, and government leaders and public opinion finger-pointing government employees as the main cause for public debt (often forgetting the immense amount of money disbursed to subsidize entire industry sectors that are still far from generating more wealth than the resources they have consumed) morale is going down and the temptation of just fueling the “craziness of the crowd” may be quite strong.
There are ways to regain the hearts and minds of civil servants, but they remain the Cinderella of all debates about government 2.0. Unless government find ways to re-engage employees, the new normal might be one where we won’t be able to give for granted the most basic public services.
So, can technology concretely help do so? Is social networking going to be an advantage or a disadvantage for all this?
One could take a negative spin and observe that employees would probably use social software to gripe about how bad things are, and probably make them even worse. This would happen both internally, as they IM each other, and externally, as they anonymously criticize government action on Facebook and the likes.
On the other hand, those same networks could be used to better engage them, give them a concrete chance to collectively roll their sleeves and try to sort out solutions that would help their jobs.
I am not sure I have seen any government taking a shot at the latter, and it may be worth trying, before it’s too late.