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Rethinking Digital Skills in the Public Sector

Jack O’Driscoll, Alex Evelyn
13 Sep 2022

Digital skills are essential for a modern, innovative and efficient workforce. In the Public Sector, Digital and IT skills often get confused and as a result, they aren’t seen as core civil service capabilities.

The Government has published six missions to realise digital transformation across the public sector by 2025. Mission 5, ‘Digital Skills at Scale’, sets out the ambition for 90% of senior civil servants to be upskilled on digital and data essentials as a priority. ‘Digital Skills at Scale’ isn’t as large a culture shift as many believe, as you can see there is an alignment between the principles of digital and the Civil Service’s existing competency matrix, that includes: Seeing the Big Picture; Changing and Improving; Making Effective Decisions; Leadership; Communicating and Influencing; Working Together; Developing Self and Others; Managing a Quality Service; and Delivering at Pace.

The Civil Service of the future requires a ‘digitally confident’ workforce that embodies existing core competencies, whilst embracing a digital approach to continuous improvement and measurable user value. This will enhance the resilience of civil service roles as well as the effectiveness of their delivery.

Enhancing workforce expertise

Recent announcements about the future of the Civil Service profession (staff reductions and return to office initiatives) means a greater focus will be placed on peoples’ presence, productivity, outputs and outcomes. The Civil Service behaviour framework emphasises leadership, collaboration and personal growth as core attributes. Digital Skills can address the long-standing challenge of Civil Servants being viewed as ‘generalists’ that do not remain in post for sufficient time to build the knowledge, experience or relationships to be considered a subject specialist[1].

By embracing digital skills, the Civil Service profession can modernise and specialise, drawing on new behavioural and technical innovations from the worlds of gaming, virtual reality and advance analytics.

An effective digital vision and strategy for Civil Service learning means the 2P’s (Presence and Productivity) and 2O’s (Outputs and Outcomes) are addressed. A digital approach to the 2P’s will realise virtual reality, performance analytics and upskilling initiatives to increase efficacy and effectiveness of professionals to deliver. Furthermore, physical spaces can be reimagined to support idea generation and solving the policy and operational challenges faced by the modern state. Digitising the 2O’s enables ‘Digital Workforce-as-a-Service’ that supports people to deliver effective outcomes at pace by learning from best practice, developing a digital institutional memory and creating a knowledge mountain of public sector expertise acute to the challenges and complexities of the modern state. Enabling staff to have the right digital skills will support recruitment, sustain retention and deliver a Civil Service that is resilient to internal and external pressures.

Improving service delivery

In a world where citizens increasingly expect more from Government and public services, than what Government and public services can sometimes deliver, civil servants increasingly need to understand both user expectations and the performance of their own services. Improved digital and data capabilities can support officials to innovate, increasing citizen wellbeing and reducing unintended consequences of government intervention. This is achieved by equipping professionals with the analytical tools (such as data analysis and user research) required to understand how a digital service creates value for users and to be able to identify opportunities for improvement. A digitally confident senior Civil Service will benefit from iterative service operational reviews, swifter deployment of new services and improved analysis of policy performance. Equipping employees with digital tools such as dashboards will improve their holistic visibility of services (meeting policy and operational measures), enabling data driven decision making and swifter responses to briefing requests.

Digital skills for the Civil Service

The public sector is an exciting place to work, and its variety means a fulfilling career is possible. However, as times change, so should approaches to work and a critical enabler for a modern, innovative and efficient Civil Service is the embrace of digital, data and analytic capabilities. These enable professionals to develop as ‘digitally confident’ employees, that fully understand the service challenges experienced by users and can articulate those pressures with the right analytical skills.

To achieve this mission, the right conditions need to be created and a shift in focus is required from seeing digital upskilling as simply ‘training’ to creating a connected network of people, processes and systems that work to change behaviour over time through ‘knowledge networks’ and the 2P’s and 2O’s approach.

[1]Institute for Government, Better policy making (2022) https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/better-policy-making.pdf