“Why do government employees need to go to office in these testing times? What are we trying to prove? Is health and safety of our families not important?”, asked a government officer who has recently recovered from Covid-19 infection.
With rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the corridors of bureaucracy, the government has finally been compelled to speed up ‘work from home’ guidelines for its employees.
As far back as May 13, the Ministry of Personnel Public Grievances and Pensions, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, circulated a draft consultation paper proposing the framework. The memo talked of staggered attendance and the need to ensure the safety and security of information while accessing government files from home.
The deadline for responses from various ministries and departments was May 21.
On June 10, the Union Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Jitendra Singh, asked his Ministry to expeditiously firm up the work from home policy guidelines. “We have found that the output in certain cases is even higher when WFH. A system needs to be developed,” he said. Critics would say it is too late in the day. The corporate sector has been far more agile. By the time the government guidelines kick in, it might be too late.
Also, concerns have been raised on whether government employees have the necessary tools to be productive from home. What will be the key parameters the government will need to develop to measure productivity?
Five parameters to work on
Pankaj Bansal, Co-Founder & CEO, People Strong Technologies, is of the view that the government would need to work on five parameters:
Type of work: Is it possible to complete the work from home?
Confidentiality/security of data: Is any information sharing secure? It is important to go beyond emails.
Collaboration systems set-up: At times, multiple officers might need to come together to take a decision, how seamlessly can they collaborate?
Logistical requirement: Do employees have necessary tools to be productive from home, including connectivity and hardware?
Delivery of work: How will their customers (citizens, other ministries) get the outcome without adding loopholes for corruption?
If the private sector has been able to do all this, why not the government? According to HR consultant Prabir Jha, “The private sector has been more IT-enabled across levels for some years now. And it does not have security threats like in some government ministries. Work from home thus has been a proactive practice, in varying limits, in various private firms, to enable people some flexibility in their work-life challenges, or for days where physical movement to office is impacted due to weather or security risks. However, certain functions cannot be performed at all from home and in such cases even the private sector has its obvious limits of exclusion.”
Bansal agrees that the most critical element will be movement of files with high level of data security as most stuff is confidential and can have wide impact. This could lead to decision paralysis, he fears.
According to Jha, “There are many ways in which mails can be prevented from being copied or forwarded. However, the perceived levels of IT (il)literacy and the risks of leakage will need education and risk protection protocol before sensitive work can be handled electronically, especially from any insecure lines. A lot of work has already become digitally enabled. That shift will only intensify in the days to come. Field offices will, in the near term, need to follow the office protocol as work resumes, with rotating presence of personnel till normalcy is achieved”, he adds.
But will the same norm work for all ministries and departments?
Given the fact that each State, department, and ministry is at a different level of digitisation and digitalisation, it might not be possible to have a uniform SOP (standard operating procedure), agrees Jha.
Bansal feels the same technology and hardware backbone can run but with different processes, which can be configured to each ministry. “Remember, it’s an opportunity for government like never before to crack the new code of work by enhancing productivity and agility,” he points out.
Is the government ready, is the question.
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