‘Upskilling civil servants will boost efficiency’: Five minutes with Karl Andreas Sprenk from Estonia’s Government CIO Office

By on 14/03/2024 | Updated on 14/03/2024

Karl Andreas Sprenk, digital skills coordination director in Estonia’s Government CIO Office, discusses starting out in the civil service, inspiration from overseas, and the success of the Digital Leaders development programme.

This is part of a ‘Five minutes’ series featuring speakers from the forthcoming Global Government Forum Innovation conference (London, 19-20 March). At the event, Sprenk will participate in a session on skills for the future.

What are you most interested in discussing at Innovation 2024?

Recruiting talent and upskilling people’s competencies – to hear the experts from various backgrounds sharing their perspectives is something I am already looking forward to.

What drew you to a career in the civil service?

For years I worked in civil society organisations and embodied the “demanding social partner” from another side of the table. After graduating from a political sciences and governance programme at university, I felt curious to approach similar discussions and processes from another perspective and I applied for my first civil service position, which has led me to a whole different path than I imagined 10 years ago when graduating high school.

Read more: ‘AI will transform the civil service’: Five minutes with Jeremy Pocklington, the UK’s energy security and net zero permanent secretary

What advice would you give someone starting out in the civil service?

To be demanding, but not too demanding, for yourself. Starting in the civil service might seem overwhelming, similar to a deep ocean, but after a while you probably learn to swim in this ocean without hesitation.

What do you like most about working in the civil service?

One of the stigmas regarding working for the government sector is the perception about endless amounts of bureaucracy and lack of interesting projects. Perhaps I have been fortunate so far, but aside from a decent level of bureaucracy, I have had a great chance to run very inspiring initiatives, which hopefully contribute to the ‘better good’ and improve society in the long run.

How might the civil service be different in 25 years’ time?

More efficient. I think we should not wait for this to happen naturally some time in the future – this can be achieved by reskilling and upskilling our civil servants already today. We need to equip them with (digital) skills and knowledge to reduce and remove time-consuming work procedures and improve their mindset – e.g. what can and should be done using technology.

Training: Boosting skills across the public service to drive reform

Which country’s civil service or which government department or agency are you most inspired by and why?

From neighbouring regions, I really like how systematically colleagues from the Danish Agency for Digital Government have approached digital skills development. Their model of digital skills, which was also highlighted in a recent OECD report, is delivered in a well-structured way and provides inspiring insights even for those without a deep understanding about digital skills.

But also, the Canada School of Public Service Digital Academy and its various methods (particularly the Busrides product), the Australian Public Service Career Pathfinder, as well as the UK Central Digital and Data Office’s Digital Excellence programme – particularly the cooperation model between government, private sector and academy. All of these are great inspiration to learn from.

Are there any projects or innovations in your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas? 

In recent years, approximately 80% of the Estonian government’s top executives – e.g. deputy secretary generals, directors of public authorities, etc. – have completed a Digital Leaders development programme. The programme allows participants to acquire a thorough practical skillset consisting of technology management theory and practical methods for public sector leadership.

As an impact of the programme, we are already witnessing the increasing quality of strategic ICT planning – more comprehensive understanding of the potential to adopt technology in their respective areas and a shift from a project-driven mindset to a value-driven holistic approach.

Register now: Innovation 2024

What attributes do you most value in people?

Empathy, self-respect and respect towards others, willingness to try, fail and to have courage to try again. Adaptivity, curiosity. These are attributes I try to prioritise in myself and which I value in people I like to work with. I agree with the statement that skills can be acquired and improved but changing behaviours and habits is more resource-demanding and challenging, if not impossible.

What’s your favourite thing to do at the weekends?

I tend to overbook my calendar. To discover there are no responsibilities due – I think it is somewhere near to my favourite kind of weekend, which can be complemented with quality time with friends or close ones.

What is your dream holiday destination?

I like frequent weekend city breaks in Europe over exotic long-haul destinations. Since going to the theatre is one of my hobbies, I am always glad to return to London. I quite regularly keep my eye on upcoming productions in the West End and try to visit them as often as possible.

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