Today’s government digital leaders ask: where are tomorrow’s?

By on 03/04/2023 | Updated on 14/04/2023
Attendees of the Global Government Digital Summit, in Ottawa, Canada.
Nearly 40 digital leaders attended the Summit, including Alison Pritchard (seated, second from left), Kirsten Tisdale (third from left), Megan Lee Devlin (fifth from left), Stephen Burt (standing, seventh from left) Gayan Peiris (12th from left) and Kevin Cunnington (sixth from right)

In the battle to attract digital professionals, governments find themselves outgunned on pay by the private sector. At the Global Government Digital Summit, digital leaders from 12 countries explored the workforce issues around transformation – covering recruitment, diversity, training and, crucially, how to attract and retain top digital talent

“One thing that’s really important for the digital profession is that there’s a pathway to the very top of the organisation,” said Alison Pritchard. “The moment when we see the first permanent secretary who’s come through the digital and data technology profession will very powerful.”

Pritchard, the UK’s deputy national statistician for data capability and a former head of the country’s Government Digital Service (GDS), told digital leaders gathered at the Global Government Digital Summit that “we’re definitely starting to see an awareness at permanent secretary level of digital competence”. But none of the 12 countries represented at the Summit – which brought digital government chiefs together in Ottawa to debate the challenges they face in common – had yet seen a digital professional promoted to lead a major department.

The previous night, former GDS director general Kevin Cunnington had helped to explain why that is – pulling out key findings from Global Government Forum’s first Digital Leaders report, produced with Cunnington in late 2021. Constrained pay for senior digital leaders, he argued, is hampering governments’ ability to hire in top digital talent: “So you end up with directors being asked to run £100m [US$120m] programmes, and you know it’s at least at the upper limit of what they can do and probably beyond it. The mistakes they make cost far more than paying the right salary in the first place; this is a really false economy.”

As a result, digital leadership is underpowered; meanwhile, said Cunnington, top organisational leaders are rarely comfortable with digital technology and “often don’t have the skills or competence to run transformation programmes”. His new ‘Digital Leader’s Toolkit’ – a follow-up to the first Digital Leaders report, again published by GGF – sets out potential solutions to both problems, explaining how governments have strengthened their digital leadership cadres and developed the digital skills and engagement of elected and organisational leaders.

This latter point is crucial. After all, the digital skills required among organisational leaders “are not inherent, and haven’t necessarily been built or rewarded in terms of how people got to those leadership positions,” commented Kirsten Tisdale, managing partner at EY Canada. As another participant pointed out: “There is no technology problem that is not actually a business problem, so it’s imperative that we get the subject matter experts who deliver services to understand how to think differently about what they want from IT professionals.”

These cohorts, suggested Tisdale, can benefit from “on-demand coaching, to help those leaders have a safe place to turn, and to help them lead these big programmes,” she commented. Pritchard meanwhile highlighted the UK’s Data Masterclass, which aims to help generalist leaders build confidence in the field and “understand the questions they should be asking of their digital folk”.

Kirsten Tisdale, managing partner at EY Canada: non-digital leaders can benefit from “on-demand coaching, to help those leaders have a safe place to turn, and to help them lead these big programmes”.

On Cunnington’s point about senior salaries, Megan Lee Devlin, chief executive of the UK’s Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO), argued that finance departments can be persuaded to raise digital specialists’ pay if presented with hard evidence of the false economies within current practices. Demonstrating the additional costs generated when departments must rely on contractors for key roles, for example, her office has worked closely with the Treasury to establish the Digital, Data and Technology framework. This enables digital talent to attract market-competitive uplifts in pay, based on rigorous benchmarking and a robust business case: “The business case stacks up,” she said.

The CDDO is also working to strengthen the digital leadership cadre by “playing a much bigger role in the appointment of senior digital leaders,” noted Lee Devlin, explaining that the government’s chief digital officer or the CDDO chair sit on departmental CIO appointment panels.

Canada’s central digital team too is getting involved in CIO appointments, said its chief data officer Stephen Burt – creating a new central process for recruiting and deploying CIOs. “It’s been a success in terms of cutting down timelines and doing better matchmaking,” Burt commented. “But it still requires a willing deputy minister, who will take the candidate that you think is best for them.”

Ultimately, he added, the goal is to introduce a “dotted line” of management accountability back from departmental CIOs to overall Government of Canada CIO Catherine Luelo, supporting better strategic coordination across government. Reinforcing that dotted line, he explained, the CIO’s office is starting to use its power “to put requirements into [departmental CIOs’] performance management agreements” – mirroring the practice in other fields, such as finance. Departmental CIOs will then speak annually to Luelo’s team, “not just about what they did, but also about how they did it and whether it meets the digital and data standards that we’re putting into policy here”.

“The goal here is to move beyond the digital services, where I think there’s been permission for five or six years now to do innovative things, and to start to embed some of that innovation into the core processes of how we manage projects across government and the more traditional gatekeeping functions that we have across the system,” Burt explained.

To further boost capabilities at senior levels, Canada has established a ‘free agent’ programme “where we have senior technologists centrally in a pool, and can allocate them” to departmental projects. Meanwhile, Burt added, the CIO’s office is “trying to get our arms around the data community, which is going to be more complicated than the technology community”: incorporating staff from data scientists to information managers, this group “doesn’t fall into a single set of classifications and pay rates”.

Stephen Burt, chief data officer of Canada: the CIO’s office is “trying to get our arms around the data community, which is going to be more complicated than the technology community”.

In the UK, the CDDO is extending its recruitment work beyond senior leaders: the goal is to create a “single front door” to recruit digital staff, noted Lee Devlin – strengthening workforce management, and helping smaller agencies gain access to the skills they need. Meanwhile Alison Pritchard highlighted the value of organised recruitment and development programmes, such as the UK’s Digital Fast Stream graduate training programme and its 700-strong digital apprenticeships scheme. Civil service employers should reach out to university undergraduates, she added, following a model successfully deployed by big private employers. “We need to be building relationships with our potential capacity more effectively,” she said.

Governments can also expand the talent pool by supporting flexible and remote working, enabling people based far from big cities to take jobs in government. This can enhance cultural and racial as well as geographical diversity, noted Burt, giving indigenous peoples greater opportunities in public service. Gayan Peiris, head of data and technology at the United Nations Development Programme, explained that the UNDP has created new contract types permitting consultants to work remotely: “This new modality is more inclusive,” he said. “It allows us to bring in highly-skilled data talent that don’t live in megacities.”

Such initiatives illustrate the power of action on diversity to give civil service employers an advantage in recruitment markets, proving access to talented people whose opportunities are limited by discrimination, geographical remoteness, disability or caring responsibilities. It’s notable that “there are a lot more women and people of colour in senior positions in government” than in the private sector, commented one participant. Many would be amply qualified for more highly-paid private sector roles, but find themselves excluded by bias in appointments processes – so government “gets diversity – but at the cost of continuing to build the pay gap between women and minorities on one side, and white men on the other. It’s an interesting trade-off”.

Having recruited or reskilled digital staff, governments then need to make proper use of them – and that demands coherent workforce management. Strengthening central management of digital employees across the civil service can, for example, help iron out variations in departments’ offer to staff – reducing the incentive for staff to move between departments, and thus reducing churn. In the UK, said Lee Devlin, CDDO is “working with departments to remove some of the discrepancies in pay, conditions and value proposition between departments that currently exist, to strengthen our overall offer to the market and level the playing field for departments”.

Central workforce management can also provide a full, up-to-date picture of the digital workforce’s capabilities and distribution, said Pritchard – something that proved very helpful when GDS was asked to help departments mobilising to hit Brexit-related IT deadlines. Armed with this information, she said, her team was able to align demand with capacity across the system – though rather than moving staff into the departments under the greatest pressure, it proved easier to transfer some of their projects to less busy departments. “There was more of an incentive for a permanent secretary to take on a piece of work and help deliver it, than to give up some of their capacity,” she explained.

Pritchard’s unit also “worked with a wide range of suppliers to build benches of teams, and deploy them from the centre into departments to deliver key pieces of work,” she said. “It was kind of a firefighting mechanism, and they were in demand; it worked well”. Meanwhile the UK’s Digital Academy “went into overdrive, and we started putting through as many non-digital people as we could – not to turn them into software developers overnight, but to turn them into delivery managers, service designers: people can pick up those skills relatively easily,” she added. “Incidentally, our systems were ready on time. And I think it really pulled the function together in a powerful way”.

Armed with a clear, cross-government view of the digital workforce’s capabilities, central leaders can also strengthen and unify civil service employers’ training offers – a key tool for boosting recruitment and retention. “We’ve got to always be thinking about how we create a value proposition for the employee,” said EY’s Tisdale. “As well as equipping them to drive great outcomes in government, we’re equipping them to be valuable anywhere in the next stages of their careers – and that’s highly motivational for them.”

Learning opportunities should be “built into the flow of work, as opposed to something people do for a week a year, off to the side,” she continued. “We need to meet people where they are, and create those hybrid experiences”. New training models enable staff to fit learning around and into their day jobs, said Tisdale: EY’s UK government training platform offers a huge range of curated courses and qualifications, ranging from fully virtual courses by specialist providers to university-affiliated classroom learning. “All of that training is certified, all of it is tracked, so you can understand how it’s being used and the outcomes,” she said.

As governments train and develop their digital staff, employees become ever more valuable in the wider jobs market. But as Tisdale had highlighted, a good training offer is itself a potent employee benefit – helping to counterbalance the higher salaries available in the private sector. And the issue prompted a concluding thought from one participant. We should not, they said, be asking: “What if we train them, and they leave? The question is: what if we don’t train them, and they stay?”

The 2022 Global Government Digital Summit was hosted by the Government of Canada in Ottawa in October. This is the fourth article covering the digital leaders’ discussions. The first article covered the event’s evening session, including the responses to one digital leader’s plea for assistance; the second examined the discussions on developing digital ID systems; the third covered digital leaders’ views on how to drive digital transformation; and the fifth explored the issues around transitioning from legacy systems.

Although the Summit is a private event, GGF produces these reports to share as much of the discussions as possible with our readers – checking before publication that participants are happy to be quoted.

Visit to learn more about the Summit. 

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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