Headcount can’t grow fast enough to handle the increasing demands on public services. That could be because budgets are under pressure. It may be because in smaller countries, like Singapore, there simply aren’t enough people available to meet demand, without crowding out the private sector talent needs too. Or it might be hard to attract talent in the face of stiff competition.

Whatever the reason, what can public service organisations do about it? Well, it’s not about trying to hire more people. The answer lies in technology. That doesn’t mean replacing people with smart machines. For Singapore, building the Smart Nation will be all about enabling people and machines to work together on the same team. That’s the subject of a recent book by Accenture’s CTO, Paul Daugherty, that examines how the incredibly powerful combination of AI and people will deliver new outcomes and change the nature of work. 

If governments like Singapore’s prepare the organisation and workforce, and make the technology investments now, new capacity can be created and the services they can provide will no longer be limited by headcount. In a future that’s likely to see overwhelming demand for those services, Singapore will be better prepared. 

There’s little doubt that people are increasingly willing to embrace technology to augment their working lives. Accenture research[1] shows that public sector leaders are enthusiastic about AI’s possibilities. And 80 per cent of them believe that implementing intelligent technologies would improve employees’ job satisfaction. It’s not just leaders who are optimistic. Some 87 per cent of workers around the world not only expect some aspects of their current roles to be automated in the next five years, they also welcome the opportunities this will bring to learn new skills.

But the question remains about how best to create the most effective combination of machines and people. We recently did a piece of work to model today’s and tomorrow’s workforce. We built in assumptions about how technology will change the way work is done, and the implications for skills and workforce size and shape. No one has a crystal ball, of course. But an exercise like this can give a strategic direction to an organisation that’s thinking about how to prepare its workforce for the future. It also helps to prioritise and coordinate initiatives and experiments to identify the best configurations of people and smart machines.

Working with machines is going to require new, digital skills. And it’s precisely those that organisations say they lack.  But does digital talent have to be directly employed by the organisation to be an effective part of the workforce? Just as machines will augment human capabilities, why not also a much broader array of potential talent drawn from beyond traditional organisation boundaries? That could mean a public and private, freelance and contingent workforce, all contributing relevant capabilities and required capacity. 

The challenge for organisations is how to adopt that more flexible workforce, along with the HR policies that support it. But the public sector – that has often made use of volunteers in areas such as public safety and education – is perhaps uniquely positioned to tap into a voluntary or contingent workforce to augment their full-time staff. They need to grab that opportunity to emphasise citizens’ public service ethos and sense of mission. By harnessing those to overcome skills gaps and reconfigure how people and machines work together, the public sector can start to build a flexible, engaged workforce that looks very different from today.  

And they need to get started now. With Smart Nation, Singapore has an opportunity to break out of old assumptions around headcount constraints and lead the way in finding new ways of optimising people + machines. For more Smart Nation insights, visit our Smart Nation page.


Ng Wee Wei

Country Managing Director – Accenture Singapore

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