How can the public sector overcome the digital skills barrier?

Continuing our look at the barriers to digital transformation in the public sector, we turn our attention to digital skills

Austerity and reform mean that the public sector continues to search for new and innovative ways to deliver improved and enhanced services with less resource. Digital transformation has therefore become a key element of any public sector organisation’s activities. However, those activities are being hindered by a lack of IT, technology and data skills.

Research by the Cloud Industry Forum (CIF) and its Public Sector Specialist Interest Group (SIG) highlighted the problem last year when it revealed that 40 per cent of public sector organisations do not have the right skills in place to adapt to digital transformation. The survey found that 40 per cent of public sector organisations lack the necessary skills to adapt to digital transformation, and that 41 per cent have run up against a lack of internal skills and/or knowledge when attempting to migrate to a cloud solution.

These skills shortages are inhibiting government’s capacity to adapt cloud computing, and are therefore putting a brake on the government’s drive to radically change the way it offers services to citizens through digital transformation.

Alex Hilton, Chief Executive of CIF, commented: “Working with the technology that underpins digital transformation, such as on-demand cloud computing services, requires a different skill set from the traditional, proprietary IT technology of the past. Historically, many government departments and agencies have outsourced their ICT services to system integrators (SIs), in some instances believing they had also outsourced the risk by doing so. This reliance on SIs, combined with the cutbacks imposed by years of austerity, has left many public sector organisations without the necessary skills and staff in-house to confidently adapt to new approaches to ICT such as the cloud.”

 

Pronounced difference

The research identified a pronounced difference in the impact of skills shortages on public sector organisations compared with private sector organisations, with double the amount of the former highlighting a lack of in-house skills as a pressure point during the migration process and a cause of dissatisfaction (24 per cent compared to just 12 per cent).

Hilton expanded on the implications of this finding: “This widening skills gap between the public and private sector is worrying within the context of the general ICT skills shortage, suggesting that the private sector is doing a better job of drawing from the already-scarce digital talent base, leaving government organisations with a smaller pool to draw from. While it’s heartening to see government seeking to create a more digitally-savvy civil service and moving in the right direction, with the GDS Digital Academy providing skills training right across government, without the ICT skills in place these initiatives will be hampered.

 

Low-code solution

One answer is to adopt low-code solutions, removing the need for highly skilled people. “While the public sector puts faith in new digital technologies to drive innovation, engage with constituents and boost productivity, there persists a major challenge in matching technology to employees’ skills,” explains Nick Ford, Chief Technology Evangelist at Mendix. “Limited by tight budgets and driven by a shortage in specialist coding skills, public sector wages can often struggle to attract many talented software developers away from seemingly more lucrative private sector roles.

“The reality is that local authorities need to find alternative approaches to digital transformation that work around the IT skills shortage. Low-code simplifies development so it’s easy for applications to be built quickly and with minimal coding abilities. By being able to contribute in an intuitive way, low-code opens up the development process to anyone involved in a digital transformation project.

“Removing the reliance on specialist talent to develop applications, organisations are able to keep on-track, test and roll-out new applications at speed. Only by investing in tools that maximise the talent and creativity they already have, will the public sector be able to embrace digital transformation cost-effectively and at a scale.”

 

Diversity

Shaun Gomm, commercial director of digital user experience agency, Sigma, suggests that diversity is the key solution.

“In large part due to the much-discussed digital skills shortage, we’re all fighting for a limited pool of talent. Furthermore, there are times when public sector organisations are less attractive to young jobseekers with high expectations than, for example, the newest exciting AI start-up on the block. This is due to public sector bodies being perceived as outdated.

“Additionally, both the digital industries and the skills required in order to thrive within them move incredibly quickly. For example, skills in emerging fields, such as AI and service design, are becoming increasingly important as more public sector bodies begin to implement them.

“Bring a diverse mix of people in to the organisation. This could be through recruiting in-house teams or appointing the right partner (which may well not be the same one appointed for the last 10 years on a multi-million-pound framework.) Local authorities should look more towards SMEs in particular, as they can often bring greater flexibility, innovative approaches and, in some cases, better value for money than the more established players.”

 

Training

Techniques the public sector can use to attract and then retain people with the right skills were covered in a recent article – click here to read more – and training is a key element of that.

Hilton says: “In order to alleviate this issue, public sector organisations can take two approaches. They can seek to boost their in-house skillset by investing in training and guidance that enables them to more effectively and smoothly adopt core digital transformation technologies. Professional CIF membership, for example, enables professionals to access guidance and e-learning courses that help them to take full advantage of cloud.”

That can often mean tapping into specialist public sector or technology specific resources.

Peter Middleton, Chairman of the public sector SIG, concluded by commenting on the role of the SIG within this context: “Tapping into the specialised skillsets of third-parties is also a good approach to taking on the problem. While outsourcing everything to SIs has often resulted in an inability to adapt to new technologies, SMEs and cloud specialists can provide a more bespoke and agile service. However, there have been some teething problems in establishing mutual understanding between the public sector and these specialists, and that’s why CIF established a Special Interest Group dedicated to helping public sector organisations better understand the cloud marketplace and to helping CSPs meet their requirements.”

 

An example

One council that decided to take matters into in its own hands was Nottinghamshire County Council. Working alongside county-based digital specialist Dijitul and six local businesses. It provided young people hoping to pursue a digital career with a unique training and development opportunity called the Digital Enhancement Programme. This offered six-month placements with local companies in digital roles, offering on-the-job training and skills in:

  • Digital marketing
  • Making websites user-friendly and more accessible
  • Search-engine optimisation
  • Using AdWords and social media

Further information on the pilot can be found here.

 

Key recommendations

Another survey that found skills issues to be a barrier to transformation and technological advancements was commissioned last year by TechUK. It revealed that a shortage of skills and capabilities is regarded as the largest barrier to tech adoption in Government; 57 per cent of respondents saw it as a problem, an increase on the previous year.

Using the survey’s findings, and based on the need to achieve the ambitious vision outlined in the Government’s Transformation Strategy, TechUK’s Public Services Board has developed some key training and skills recommendations:

Increase willingness to experiment with new working practices

  • The end-to-end transformation envisaged by Government requires services to be digital in their design, not just in their delivery. This will require greater flexibility in working practices throughout the Civil Service.
  • Departments will need to challenge perceptions that their own working practices are unique or incompatible with other organisations if they are to have the tools needed to deliver the joined-up public services that citizens will increasingly expect.

Develop channels to fund and account for cross-government work

  • More needs to be done to support collaboration between individual Departments and organisations. In areas such as health, social care and education, where local authorities are key players in service provision, more also needs to be done to involve the wider public sector in the work going on within Central Government.

Create common standards and working practices across Departments

  • Government needs to be open with suppliers and the public about how key products such as GOV.UK Verify will be developed and adopted across Departments. Where common standards are introduced on issues such as data storage or procurement, it is important that Civil Servants are given clear guidance on what is expected, and where necessary, training.

Offer three-year placements in industry for civil servants in technical roles

  • Offering placements in Industry for Civil Servants in technical roles would allow Government to broaden its knowledge and expertise by exposing its staff to cutting-edge innovation happening in the private sector, and allow Industry to develop a better understanding of the problems faced by the public sector, and the opportunities for Industry to play a role in solving them.

Provide all Fast Stream workers with digital skills training

  • The digital training offered by the new Digital Academies will help to address the digital skills gap, and it’s important that Government continues to iterate the courses on offer in response to new technologies and user demand.
  • Future public servants should receive mandatory digital skills training through the Fast Stream process, to ensure that digital skills are embedded in the Civil Service at all levels.

Use public sector procurement to help foster innovation in the supplier community

  • Government needs to design services that can take advantage of the innovative solutions Britain’s tech sector is able to provide.
  • The public sector must understand the value of a broad and diverse supplier base, so that it can take advantage of the range of solutions that companies of different sizes and with different specialism offer, and provide the taxpayer with value for money.
  • Initiatives such as the Government’s pledge to spend £1 in £3 of its procurement budget with SMEs is welcome, but the research suggests that it has had a limited impact upon the attitudes of procurement staff within the public sector. Government should also be looking at how its procurement frameworks can be streamlined to remove the burdens that often act as a barrier to new entrants in the public sector market.

 

The need for skills development

Overall, it’s clear that a shortage of skills, expertise and capabilities is one of the biggest barriers to delivering tech-enabled public services. However, there are some solutions and steps that can be taken to ease the problem and help public sector organisations to adopt technology fit for the future.

 

Like this? Then don’t miss the first part of our look at barriers to digital transformation which asks if legacy IT is the biggest barrier to transformation?

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