Addressing the digital skills gap in the public sector
How can the public sector go about bridging the digital skills gap?
How can the public sector go about bridging the digital skills gap?
The inquiry is welcome news. Few would argue that the public sector has struggled in the digital age. The civil service, NHS and local authorities have, a few notable exceptions aside, been slow to adopt new technologies such as cloud computing, and when they have attempted modernisation, the results have been distinctly patchy; the NHS Connecting for Health programme, scrapped at a cost of over £10 billion, is merely the most high-profile example. Then there are all those damaging hacks, notably the Wannacry breach which prompted scathing criticism of the health service and its cyber security strategy.
Perhaps the most troubling issue is the lack of digital skills. The problem was laid bare in a recent report by Deloitte, which suggested that three-quarters of public sector organisations believe they lack the knowledge and talent available in the private sector. Theresa May’s Government has taken steps to address digital skills in the public space, launching the Digital Skills Partnership with a specific brief to unlock training opportunities. But the DSP’s own chair, Phil Smith, candidly admitted to us that “much more needs to be done” to bring the public sector up to speed.
How can the public sector go about bridging the digital skills gap? Well, it can start by looking at the issues it faces. According to Smith, one of the biggest single problems is a lack of funding for new talent. Local authority handouts have been slashed by over 50% since Cameron’s coalition took office in 2010. Given the pressure to maintain front-line services, public bodies simply don’t have the disposable cash for investment in digital skills, particularly against the financial might of the private sector.
To overcome this disparity, public sector managers are advised to plan their recruitment strategy meticulously. They should draw up a specific profile of the person they want, and then write a job advert focusing on the positives they can offer. And there are plenty of positives, according to Colan Mehaffey, a former digital consultant for the Scottish Government.
Mehaffey says: “The public sector has strong pension conditions, we have good working conditions and it can be quite a strong fit for digital talent. The big sell is that we’re investing in people a lot more, we understand the value of them. If you put people in an environment where they are controlled better, it can be transformational for them.”
There is a raft of job sites out there, but if state-sector bodies want to avoid locking horns with big business, they may want to consider university job boards for entry-level roles, or sites such as Jobsgopublic, which are specifically aimed at the public sector.
Whichever avenue recruitment managers choose, Mehaffey adds: “The point is to have a sharp search engine marketing strategy. Job descriptions/ keywords are critical: for example, ‘innovation’ is often misappropriated in job descriptions. Social placement and presence is critical, too.”
Yet securing young digital talent is only half the battle. Public bodies must also ensure the talent is entering an organisation which is dynamic, innovative and clear.
Many public bodies have already made progress towards a digital-first culture by abandoning the old ‘waterfall’ method of software development – a linear methodology which builds stage by stage towards final release – in favour of the modern ‘agile’ approach, favoured by tech start-ups in the private sector, which breaks the process down into small blocks with early roll-out and regular updates.
Phil Smith is full of praise, saying that “most public sector organisations I speak to are trying to be as agile as possible.” Yet take-up has been far from universal. The Institute for Government reports that slow planning procedures, coupled with a lack of dexterity in project governance, continues to restrict migration towards agile approaches despite the benefits they bring.
These issues touch on a wider problem of institutional risk-aversion. Nevil Durrant, CFO of digital transformation specialist Eduserv, tells us that while some public bodies have made real gains by going digital-first, “there’s certainly quite a natural inhibition in being the bleeding edge on technology. There’s a natural desire in some quarters to sit back and let others to take the lead.”
If public bodies want to overcome this behavioural legacy, they need to draw up a clear vision, which maps out their key functions and draws on the boldness of the start-up space.
“You can operate [with agility] when you have the right skills of people and the right environment of people,” Durrant continues. “You need to remove the fear of failure.
“At Eduserv we have a concept of ‘fail and fail fast’. If something isn’t working, we kill it. Agile is iterative but ultimately it’s all about building on learnings. Sometimes you learn more by failing than succeeding.”
This dynamic approach is only possible if the public sector invests in effective, digital-first training. In this context, the Government’s new Apprenticeship Levy, requiring all public sector organisations to enroll at least 2.3% of staff in apprenticeships each year, should be seen as an opportunity rather than an obligation.
But what sort of skills should public sector digital training programmes focus on? After all, different technologies will suit different organisations. HMRC may be reaping huge benefits from using Amazon Alexa for tax credits, but this might not be so good in the prison service. Several local councils are connecting motorists with vacant parking slots using the Internet of Things, but this has little relevance to a library or municipal leisure centre.
Richard Lowe, an eLearning specialist who has worked with corporate giants such as Orange and HSBC, recommends carrying out a fundamental diagnostic to identify a digital skills gap. “If it’s a large group, you might use survey tools such as Survey Monkey,” he says. “If it’s a smaller division, you can do desk research to find out what each department is trying to achieve. A ratings-scale survey is also good to get people’s opinion on where their skills lie.”
This knowledge can be fed into tailored training solutions, focusing on technologies in which the organisation is weakest. There are various potential formats, including eLearning, workshops and old-fashioned classroom tuition. Lowe suggests that, while eLearning is very common at the moment due to cost constraints, it may not provide the face-to-face training older staff need.
“Just listening to a webinar won’t deliver change,” he says. “Getting people in a room might be more expensive, but it can deliver real benefits. After all we are naturally interactive, and social. Plus, people need to get on these systems and actually use them. Give them simulations, give them hand-held exercises.”
To complement their training, public bodies are urged to create a network of ‘super-users’, evangelists for specific technologies who can mentor their colleagues. ‘Learn at lunch’ sessions, company-wide gatherings where an individual team member discusses a subject that interests them, can be extremely useful in encouraging staff to reveal their expertise.
Training managers will also find a plethora of courses available externally. The Government Digital Service has created its own academy, offering programmes in Leeds, London, Manchester and Newcastle, and the private sector is taking an active role; Mehaffey says Google’s Digital Garage programme is particularly useful as “it provides the full spectrum of digital skills, and it’s a blended offering complete with in-house courses. It’s free, they can do drop-in, they offer online courses, and they’re forging more and more partnerships with the public sector.”
There is one issue which is often overlooked, even though it straddles all the aforementioned challenges. Gender diversity is a major challenge for public sector digital teams, even though they can unlock a huge untapped market if they can solve it.
A number of women are making waves as public sector digital leaders. They include Alison McKenzie-Folan, whose support for AI and robotics has helped Wigan Council win national awards; Emma Tiernan, who has led a major ICT transformation programme at Watford council; and Nadira Hussain, who has headed up transformation programmes in the London boroughs of Enfield and Tower Hamlets for the past three years. Yet the vast majority of senior roles are still performed by men.
This problem is a major focus for Hussain, the former president of digital society Socitm who has developed a specific programme to empower women in the digital world. She believes that, if the public sector can close the gender gap in digital roles, it will be hugely beneficial in reducing the overall skills shortage and providing a source of inspiration to young women.
While admitting “there’s no magic wand” to attract women to digital roles, Hussain says female public sector managers can make significant gains by doing outreach work, going to conferences and events and “demonstrating we can make a difference as women”. Visiting colleges and speaking to teenage girls can also provide a great platform to spread the message.
Language is also crucial. Hussain adds that, if public sector organisations want to attract more women to tech roles, “the way we pitch our ads and job descriptions makes a huge difference. If you focus on examples of contributing and making a change to the business, it makes it more attractive to women.
“It’s about reaching out, creating internal networks and showcasing what we do within the ICT space. It’s demystifying the technology, and helping people understand the benefits of changing working practices.”
None of these improvements, on their own, will bridge the digital skills gap. The public sector faces a huge challenge after years of poor practice and chronic lack of investment in digital skills. But, taken together, these changes can provide the foundation for lasting change.
The digital revolution is littered with stories of start-up companies achieving seemingly impossible things through bold, innovative strategies. Now it’s time for the public sector to follow suit.