A digitally enabled workforce must be at the heart of any vision for a smarter state of the future that is efficient, agile and responsive to the needs of citizens.
However, it is widely acknowledged that the UK has a digital skills gap that needs to be addressed. While this applies to the private sector as well, the challenge is particularly acute in the public sector: budgetary constraints mean that departments often can’t compete with the salaries on offer to lure talent in a fiercely competitive market.
So, how can central government and other parts of the public sector meet the transformation challenge and drive up the digital skills base? This was the subject of an engrossing workshop we hosted with techUK recently as part of a series of events focused on how we can achieve the vision of ‘Building the Smarter State’.
The first point to emerge was that, in fact, there is a lot to be optimistic about. Digital skills has really come onto the agenda within government and there is significant, coordinated activity to create a step change. The skills challenge forms part of a published digital strategy, Transforming for a Digital Future, which consists of six core missions and some 75 specific projects ranging from digitising frontline services to the digital overhaul of entire systems such as benefits. For the very first time, a target has also been agreed for the proportion of civil servants (6%) who can be considered as digital or data technologists. This may still be behind the private sector where that figure is estimated at between 8-10%, but it is a great base to build from.
There is also a focal point for driving digital upskilling – the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) which has been set up under the ownership of the Cabinet Office. With approaching 1,000 staff devolved across the civil service, the CDDO is leading the charge and overseeing the roll-out of a wide variety of digital learning programmes and initiatives. These are targeted at all types of user – recognising that in today’s workplace digital skills are a pervasive requirement for all of us, not just technologists. A rich variety of digital training is available through the Government Campus portal.
Digital by design
Nevertheless, there was recognition that a whole variety of measures are needed to address the issue. We need to forcefully and intentionally design our way through it.
Structured training and upskilling programmes have an important role to play, but these won’t be enough on their own not least due to the very pace with which technology and data is moving.
Technical communities are a highly effective mechanism for digital professionals who can connect, share, ask and learn from each other – inside and outside of government – including considering the very latest developments such as generative AI.
Then there is the question of learning styles. Many people, the younger generation in particular, learn best through accessing resources in the flow of work. Learning strategies need to suit the needs of users, such as through online learning platforms that provide this instant support and that can be accessed and returned to or continued at a convenient time. Learning becomes modular and bite-sized, rather than rigid and formalised.
This is particularly important because of the blurring of boundaries we’re seeing between ‘technologists’ and others, between those who make and those who use. Approaches to upskilling and learning need to reflect this fluid and interdependent dynamic.
To make all of this work, another fundamental precept is that civil service leaders must own, drive and support the digital agenda. They need to develop a digital first mindset because they set the culture and can become catalysts for change. An encouraging trend here is the increase in CDIOs being appointed to government departments – strategic sponsorship of the digital agenda is becoming more visible.
A further key area is the question of resourcing. A recurring theme during the conversation was that there has historically been too great a dependence on contractors. It’s a quick and flexible solution of course – but contractors can only be a part of the answer.
There is a determination to build greater in-house digital capability and resource. There have been some inspiring success stories based on ‘growing your own talent’, such as at Brent Council who recruited three apprentices from the local community who are now fully-fledged automation professionals. Two more have recently been recruited as the team grows and widens its remit to also consider AI and machine learning.
A flexible ecosystem needs to be created with a constantly adjustable interplay of different talent sources: internal technology professionals, a digitally capable general workforce, contingent workers, specialist contractors, external consultants and partners. External parties should actively strive not only to support in the delivery of services but to ensure knowledge and skills transfer to internal teams, creating sustainable growth in capability.
The four Bs
Borrow is about augmenting the existing talent pipeline with external support; Buy centres on external recruitment solutions to bring new and diverse talent in; Bot is the harnessing of automation to re-engineer how certain tasks are done; while Build focuses on creating that all-important sustainable in-house talent pool through skills development, learning pathways, and learning curriculums and academies.
These four levers are already in use across the civil service – but arguably they are being pulled in different ways and at different times by individual departments. The time has come to capitalise on all the promising foundational work that has been done, joining up across central government to drive the digital step change needed.