Train to retain: growing talent in the public sector

By on 30/11/2022 | Updated on 30/11/2022
A person at a home desk with a laptop

Citizens’ increasing demand for high quality public services comes at a time when government departments around the world are facing the effects of the Great Resignation. Those watching a recent Coursera webinar found out why retaining and enhancing internal talent is more important than ever – and why upskilling is key  

At a time when state coffers are dwindling, hiring people for public service roles can be prohibitively expensive and time consuming, and the Great Resignation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. More than ever, if they are to deliver high quality public services and earn the public’s trust, government departments need to fight to keep their staff motivated and engaged or else risk losing them to the private sector.

To avoid this, many governments are focusing on upskilling and reskilling their employees. This has been made easier by advancements in ed-tech and digital learning, and organisations that use such technologies are finding they are more adaptable to change.

In a recent webinar hosted by online course provider Coursera, public and private sector experts shared lessons for government leaders on how to strengthen capabilities within their own departments.

Setting the scene for the discussion was Kyle Clark, senior product marketing manager at Coursera. Clark’s team have noticed a significant change in citizens’ expectations of government services. As technologies have advanced, citizens have increasingly drawn direct comparisons between government services and the kinds of services they use every day. If a wide variety of groceries can be ordered and delivered to their door in just a few hours, should processing a passport really take more than a month?

Kyle Clark

Citizens now broadly expect most services to take only a matter of days – and some two hours or less, Clark explained. As a result, governments and their employees are under increasing pressure to make this possible. Against this backdrop, potential new hires know that what they lose in income in the public sector – the median base salary for data science roles in the private sector is around US$100,000 a year, compared to around US$70,000 in the public sector, for example – they will make up for in stability and what Clark called a “higher sense of purpose” or “public mission”. However, the private sector has caught up to understanding the importance of purpose and is luring people with the promise that they will make both money and impact.

“We’re starting to see that blurring, where the mission and the benefits [of the public sector] may not be the same draw that they used to be,” Clark said.

So, what can governments do? Clark used to consult with the US federal government, and while he knows from experience that outsourcing can work, going down this route can amount to “giving away all of the challenges [government is] expected to solve and all the talent that they need in order to solve [them],” he said.

With this in mind, and as governments modernise, the need to retain existing internal staff and broaden their skillsets becomes all the more important.

The skills most in demand in the public sector revolve around the use of data. Employees are keener than ever to learn how to optimise the use of spreadsheets, for example. This may not sound very ambitious, but as Clark explained, data skills need to be everywhere in government, and should not be treated as something meant “for the chosen few”. Wherever they are applied, data skills lead to “better decisions and… a better understanding of how to serve our citizens”.

Training on campus, and online

The conversation turned to how governments are meeting workforce challenges and the need to upskill staff in data and in a wide variety of other areas too.  

Israel Pastor Sainz-Pardo, deputy director of learning at the learning sub-directorate of Spain’s Ministry of Finance and Civil Service gave an example of what Spain is doing in this area. The government employs a high proportion of ageing civil servants – amounting to what Sainz-Pardo referred to as a “demographic crisis” – and too few have the requisite IT skills needed to deliver modern public services. To remedy this, since the beginning of the pandemic, the administration has been rolling out more online training.

“At the Spanish National Institute we train, in ballpark figures, some 55,000 people a year, half of those online,” he explained.

Read more: Skills trends shaping workforce development  

Over the last couple of years, skills training has become a greater focus in the UK too. There, ministers and senior civil servants came together in 2021 to issue a declaration on government reform, recognising that overcoming the challenges departments are experiencing requires a new way of working. The declaration called, in part, for the creation of a government campus, bringing together training and development with the aim of building the skills, knowledge and networks that civil servants need in person and online.

The campus is centred around a five-strand framework. These strands include skills (such as data analysis or chairing a meeting); knowledge of how government works; leadership training; specialist skills (training by and for professions); and domain knowledge, which involves giving employees broad sector knowledge training.

Inclusion and incentives

Vicky Elliott

Vicky Elliott, deputy director for public sector leadership at the Leadership College for Government, which is part of the UK Cabinet Office, stressed that in addition to being thorough in content, such training is designed to be equitable and inclusive.

“Some of it is online, some of it is in person, but it really is open to all of our public servants. We’re working closely with lots of different partners across the wider public sector,” she explained, adding that work at the campus also incorporates collaboration with the private and third sectors.

“What we’ve discovered in establishing a government campus to give people the skills that they need, is that we have far more in common [with other countries] in terms of the challenges of how we give people those skills than we do in terms of differences.”

Next, Emmanuel Kgomo, chief director in South Africa’s Department of Public Service and Administration, told the webinar audience about the country’s ‘Batho Pele’ (People First) Unit – which he heads up – and its focus is on the professionalisation of the public service.

He explained the three ways in which the administration upskills public servants. One way is through training, with courses for incumbent officials that aim to improve service delivery across government. These courses are run through the National School of Government, partnerships with private schools, and through provincial public service schools, as well as sector education training authorities.

Emmanuel Kgomo

“Government needs to influence the curriculum across the training institutions, across all the sectors. Government will [therefore] have policies that will assist in governing the kind of training curriculums that are required,” Kgomo said.

Through these institutions, South Africa can build the capacity of its administration, he said, giving officials training both in person and online in everything from administration to project management and preventing corruption and fraud.

Kgomo also explained how programmes such as Breaking Barriers, which is aimed at new entrants to the public service, target young people whose sense of purpose needs nurturing early on, and added that online working means that young people from rural areas are now easier to include in recruitment drives.

“Working remotely encourages younger generations to join the public service. And of course, using technology is their thing. The older generation would have a bit of a challenge,” Kgomo said.

Career ladders and climbing walls

Eyal Ram, deputy director general and director of the Teaching Staff Administration at Israel’s Ministry of Education, is responsible for the continuum of teacher development at the ministry. He offered a slightly different perspective on the topic of retaining staff.

He cited a recent McKinsey report which found that 40% of workers globally say they might leave their job in the near future. One of the main reasons given for this, he explained, was “lack of career development”. Salaries were a factor too, as was “workplace flexibility”.

Such factors have contributed to a shortage of teachers worldwide and the problem, Ram said, is particularly acute in Israel, where population growth is the highest of all OECD countries.

Eyal Ram

Ram explained that incentivising teachers to stay in their roles had taken a series of negotiations, including the signing of a salary agreement for new teachers, a policy of rewarding excellence, and an initiative through which a teacher who stays in their post for more than three years may be entitled to specific grants.

These are all ways to stabilise teachers’ career paths, but Ram said that more must be done to make teaching a competitive profession that “attracts high quality human capital”. The Ministry of Education has therefore worked to change the system by increasing the variety of roles teachers can pursue.

“It won’t just be about how many years you are a teacher for, but also the role you take. A teacher’s career path is not like a ladder. It is more like a climbing wall – sometimes you need to go down a little bit in order to reach a higher point.”

What is clear in all of this is that more than ever, citizens need to be confident that public sector organisations employ people with the skills to deliver. Coursera’s Clark rounded off the conversation by emphasising that though it may never be able to compete with the private sector from a financial standpoint, “the desire to serve fellow citizens” opens comparatively limitless avenues for career growth within government. That mobility, coupled with a higher sense of purpose, is a powerful combination, but there must be continual investment in upskilling and reskilling if talent, once on board, is to be retained.

The webinar Upskilling the public sector workforce: how government can develop the talent it needs was hosted by Coursera on 19 October 2022, with support from Global Government Forum. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page here.

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