Leaving the Classroom Behind: L&D in the Post-COVID Public Sector

No organisation escaped the pandemic unscathed. But throughout the crisis, the public sector has been trailing significantly behind both top industry performers and the private sector.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 17 February 2021
Leaving the Classroom Behind: L&D in the Post-COVID Public Sector

Today we outline some exclusive insights from our 2021 Learning Health Check (LHC). 75% of the 179 public sector respondents are leaders in L&D. Our research—still not publicly available—delves into why public sector companies have lagged behind in terms of organisation, efficiency, and people performance. Their approach to COVID has been to subsist, wait it out, rather than seize the opportunity to innovate changes in their learning cultures.

But it’s not too late. In fact, those organisations in the public sector that have embraced new approaches to L&D, such as Mind Tools for Business, haven’t just survived—they’ve thrived.

L&D departments are losing confidence in their vision

COVID has seen organisations struggling with competing priorities. This has been amplified in the public sector, which has seen severe reductions in performance compared to before the pandemic. The stark results from our LHC 2021 research illustrate just how drastic the impact of the crisis has been.

  • Before COVID, 26% of L&D departments felt they were successfully increasing on-the-job productivity. But during the crisis, this dropped to just 12%.

  • Prior to the pandemic, 29% felt organisational performance was on the rise. Since COVID, a mere 10% felt this way.

  • 23% of departments felt they were effectively driving innovation and exploration until the pandemic hit. Then it plummeted to a staggering 7%.

These hits to innovation, performance, and productivity didn’t affect the public sector exclusively, but the private sector was affected far less. For example, whilst the proportion of public sector respondents who felt they were catering to individual employees’ needs before COVID fell from 23% to 15%, the private sector ploughed on ahead, decreasing only from 26% to 23%. This is likely because the private sector has a stronger financial buffer in times of crisis.

But Mind Tools for Business minimises internal costs for those public sector organisations struggling with a lack of L&D resources, and provides them with best-in-class learning materials which maximise ROI.

The public sector is reacting where it can


Public sector spending on employee L&D rose substantially from £660 per person pre-COVID to £827 during. Furthermore, the sector increased spending on learning technologies (relative to overall budget) from 21% to 32%. This outweighed the parallel investment made in the private sector, which rose only from 28% to 30%. And moreover, the private sector actually dropped their per-employee L&D spending from £709 to £689.

However, the private sector was technologically and infrastructurally better prepared for remote L&D. The public sector has been traditionally oriented towards face-to-face learning in the classroom. What’s more, it lags behind the private sector insofar as the latter wields greater client use and experience.

But the breakneck speed with which the public sector has upped spending in this area veils a heightened risk of mistaking learning technologies for a comprehensive solution to the novel challenges of the digital workplace. And the pitfalls of rapid implementation and expansion of these technologies in an environment that’s simply not ready for them can’t be understated.

Whilst central government boosted their investment in learning technologies exponentially, local governments flagged. Although interestingly, local governments develop a sizeable proportion of their learning content in-house, and they also tend to have comparatively large L&D departments. Nevertheless, we’ve seen remarkable results when they have adopted online toolkits such as Mind Tools for Business.

The rift between public and private sector is starting to show

Before COVID, face-to-face learning constituted 62% of all learning delivery in the public sector, compared to 46% in the private sector. This speaks of not only divergent technological capabilities, but also of cultural challenges at every level of the organisations, from leaders through management (and L&D practitioners) to employees.

Over-reliance on classroom learning has seen the public sector left behind in recent years—but this difference was laid bare during COVID. And whilst the public sector has responded somewhat proactively by rapidly shifting from in-person to online or blended delivery modes, this still masks a structural issue yet to arise. This is evidenced not least by the fact that 22% of public sector organisations continue to project increased face-to-face learning for the next two years, compared to only 15% in the private sector.

Central and local government may consider the pandemic’s impact on the workplace only temporary, hence their current tendency for simply shuffling delivery modes rather than transforming them. But how much longer can they ignore the top performers, which are building resilient learning systems in direct response to the constraints imposed by COVID?

One common issue encountered by the public sector is low-quality learning materials of unknown origin and veracity. That’s why it’s important to work with a learning online resource, such as Mind Tools for Business. Our content is trustworthy, grounded in data that’s been sourced from both individual and enterprise users for 20 years. That way, public sector organisations lay the foundations for healthier, more stable learning cultures, empowering their people, and fortifying their ethos.

The disconnect between culture and technology

One of the standout transformations our research highlighted was the extent to which COVID forced public sector organisations to rapidly enhance key capability areas.


  • Before the pandemic, only 22% of organisations reported that their L&D departments wielded knowledge management capabilities. But during COVID, this rose to 25%.

  • L&D technology and infrastructure rose from 20% to 32%.

  • Digital content development rose from 17% to 30%.

  • The facilitating of social and collaborative learning rose from a mere 7% to 26%.

  • And most striking of all, webinars and virtual classrooms increased from 17% to an impressive 37%.

Where the public sector’s focus was on classroom delivery, administration, and learning management, it’s shifted over the past year to digital solutions. The former remain the prevalent capabilities in-house; and in the new world of work, it may be a few years before the requisite culture for a flourishing virtual workplace catches up with the public sector’s newly adopted learning technologies. But in the meantime, they can call on Mind Tools for Business. Our experts can act as a natural extension of your organisation’s L&D department, affording you much more time to focus on mission-critical activities.

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About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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