‘No analogue jobs’: building cross-government digital capability

By on 08/11/2021 | Updated on 10/11/2021
'We see lots of programmes that are built around specific competencies within the digital domain. What worries us is the gap that leaves in the rest of the organisation,' says Stephen Somerville. Photo courtesy ThisIsEngineering via Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic created huge demand for digital skills within governments, accelerating an existing global trend. But building a government-wide digital profession is no simple matter. At a recent GGF webinar, Liz Heron heard leaders discuss how it should be done and the best management strategies to follow

When Geoff Huggins took his first civil service job at Old Admiralty Building in London’s Whitehall a little over 30 years ago, there was a typing pool where officials took their handwritten notes to be typed up. A few years later, Huggins, who is now director of digital at the Scottish Government, moved to a post at Stormont House Annexe in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where civil servants were soon to be given desktop computers backed up by an IT department, whose staff came and fixed technical issues for them.

“But now I’m looking across my organisation, where traditionally the professionals would have been in my directorate… and that’s no longer adequate,” he said. “I need to see digital professionals – digital leaders – right across the organisation because the skills are now part of how we deliver government.”

Cross-government digital capability has been advancing rapidly over recent years and the COVID-19 pandemic has given it a further dramatic boost, with governments under intense pressure to provide online services such as contact-tracing systems, information portals, online learning, and remote medical appointments in a short timeframe.

But just how do you go about building a cross-government digital profession? What is the best approach to recruiting personnel with digital, data and technology skills and to training existing staff? And how do you communicate the benefits of digital to employees who are resistant to change? At a Global Government Forum webinar held last month, experts discussed the options.

Stephen Somerville

“We hear a lot about the ‘data family of jobs’, or the ‘digital family of jobs’ in our work with government,” said Stephen Somerville, global government partnerships advisor with online training provider Coursera, the webinar’s knowledge partner.

“But the point is this: there aren’t really any analogue jobs now. There is a need for digital and data literacy across governments and across organisations. We see lots of programmes that are built around specific competencies within the digital domain. What worries us is the gap that leaves in the rest of the organisation.”

Somerville warned that government recruiters who are seeking to build a digital profession need to factor in a global shortage of tech workers, which management consultancy Korn Ferry predicts will reach 85 million by 2030, resulting in US$8.5 trillion of lost revenue.

“And to make things harder, private sector salaries outpace government salaries typically by about 20%,” he said. “So you are competing for those people but you’re competing at a disadvantage.

“The key point here for me is about reskilling. You’re not going to fill the [vacant] roles in most governments on the open market. You’re going to need to think about reskilling the employees that you’ve already got into these high-demand areas.”

Freedom for creativity

Teresa D’Andrea, director general, data and advanced analytics with Transport Canada’s digital services and transformation office, said many civil servants were fearful of losing their jobs to digital and automation but, in reality, it offered to free them up to focus on the more creative aspects of their jobs.

“It’s not really about machines or algorithms replacing humans, it’s about collaborating with them – and seeing machines as part of your workforce,” she said. “When we talk about robots or machines, we are really talking about robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These are all excellent at processing petabytes of data in milliseconds, whereas humans are creative creatures with an ability to adapt and work with uncertainty.”

What this means, she said, is that “machines are here to augment humans, who can provide that higher-order cognitive value to your organisation. Building a digital profession means embracing technology and working with it to really deliver value to the organisation.”

Teresa D’Andrea

D’Andrea said the best way to overcome staff resistance to digital tools was to focus on departments where people were receptive to new technology and then develop use-cases that could be used as exemplars.

These involve analysing the components of a work-stream; identifying aspects that could be made more efficient through automation; creating a system to implement this; and then trying it out in practice with the relevant team.

“As we move into this digital space, there is always going to be a bell-curve,” she said. “I don’t worry about the people who are digging their heels in. You’re not going to change their mind today, maybe not even tomorrow. Focus on the people who are engaged and then start building use cases.

“Once you have a few of those under your belt, the naysayers will start to look over and say: ‘Ah, that’s kind of cool. Look at how easy it is for them. Look at how efficient they’ve become. And look, their employees are doing cool stuff instead of all the administrative tasks.’ That’s where you start getting that pivot and that change.”

Light-touch learning

Danielle Brigida, deputy director of digital strategy for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the US, said internal communications could be used to engage civil servants with new digital tools through light-touch learning opportunities.

Danielle Brigida

“We created an internal… community of practice that made it a little bit more accessible and lighter than any kind of structured training,” she said. “We call ourselves creative comms. We have internal experts who come in and talk.

“When it comes to technology [and] communication, I want to make sure that we’re providing different conversations [at multiple levels]. It’s all about just making it as accessible as possible… and also seeing your community of peers learning it too.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bureau ran a one-off session for staff on Facebook Live, which was led by a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park, who spoke about how he used social media in his job to engage with the public.

“It came at the perfect time,” said Brigida. “We had a lot of different park rangers attend because they could no longer engage in the way they used to, due to the pandemic. It was a good example of exactly what we wanted that community of practice to be. It needs to be a solution for how to do your job better.”

Continuous recruitment

Huggins conducted some research on why employees joined public sector organisations in his previous role as director of the National Health Service Education Scotland Digital Service, where he was responsible for creating a digital platform for the NHS.

“What people told us was that they wanted to do something which had meaning and which was interesting,” he said. “One of the things that came out of that was that people would take a pay cut to come and work in government, because we do the most exciting things.

Geoff Huggins

“That’s taking us to a point where, when we advertise, we no longer say: ‘This is band B, the job pays this much and we do a good pension’. We tell the story that, if you come here, you will build Scotland’s new social security system or you will be delivering improved healthcare. Through better reducing cancer waiting times, you will be saving lives. People get excited by that.”

The NHS was also able to recruit some very bright people with digital skills, who might join one or more particular projects and stay in the organisation for two or three years, before jumping to do something interesting somewhere else, Huggins said.

“That means our mindset around recruitment has to anticipate challenges around retention, which is good because it allows us to refresh,” he said. “But it means that we need to be in continuous recruitment to be able to fill those professional skills across the organisation.”

In his current post, Huggins has learnt other lessons about bringing in talent from the private sector. One of the first things he did was to appoint a specialist recruiter from Skyscanner, an online travel business, to deploy their skills on behalf of the Scottish government and build capacity.

“Quite often we’re competing with other parts of government for the same talent,” he said. “So at the moment, we are doing work in a Scottish context to try and create a single pipeline rather than multiple pipelines.”

Best of both worlds  

Over the longer term, the prospects for digital government are bright and it will change the nature of civil service jobs for the better, Transport Canada’s D’Andrea insisted. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” she said. “It really is about us working together with machines and figuring out a way that we can really bring the best of both worlds to bear.”

She pointed to McKinsey research which estimated that 400m jobs are going to be displaced by automation, but that 500-900m new jobs are going to be created.

As a result of the move to digital, “we’re going to start looking at remote teams, career mobility [and] work management or workload management,” D’Andrea said. “Less hierarchy and more accountability are going to be pushed down to the working level and problem identification and problem solving will be happening more at the source.”  

As a result, she said, senior executives will work on prioritisation and become “conductors of the orchestra”.

Cross-government digital capabilities are being successfully built up in many countries. As with anything, there are barriers to progress, not least a shortage of tech specialists – but as the webinar panellists agreed, when it comes to aspects such as upskilling existing staff, communicating the benefits of the move to digital effectively is a good place to start.

The Global Government Forum webinar Building a digital profession was held on 5 October, with the support of knowledge partner Coursera. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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