Governments aren’t getting enough digital skills


This page in:

The recent World Bank Tech Savvy report highlights the need for a whole-of-government approach to digital transformation. The lessons we have learnt so far from implementing digital public sector projects in a range of countries also bring to the fore the importance of inhouse internet-era skills, competencies, and the enabling environment to successfully achieve digital transformation.

Any effective design and ownership of public sector digital services, whether insourced or outsourced, should be based on standards that reflect inherent values and principles that the government wishes to infuse throughout its services ; such as putting users first, working in the open, and protecting data privacy—which are the building blocks for greater trust and uptake by the public. Additionally, leadership skills are required to enforce these standards through a coordinated approach, as well as an organizational culture that closes the empathy gap between public service providers and users.  

In this blog, we highlight three areas of focus that governments and GovTech projects could consider, to build in-house capacity and skills for digital transformation.

1. Help the public sector join the hiring frenzy  

In spite of the clear benefits of building inhouse digital capacity, most governments are still sitting on the sidelines of the biggest tech-talent war, armed with antiquated recruitment practices and bygone salary scales. The packages and perks offered by the tech industry leave governments with slim pickings from the talent pool, contributing to a growing digital gap with the private sector.  The stakes are high for governments: skill shortages could hobble public sector capacity to effectively deliver services, regulate the wider digital economy, and safeguard against cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.

The breadth and depth of the extent of the gap calls for innovative solutions. Code for Canada has, for example, created a bridge between technology professionals and government through fellowship programs that deliver value for the public sector and identify talent, while creating entry points for them to experience public service. Rethinking procurement methods and staffing models by introducing greater agility and flexibility can also allow governments to source talent from a wider pool of individuals.

2. Upskill, reskill, repeat

Given the chronic shortage of digital talent worldwide and the aging public sector workforce, governments need to take a proactive role in creating a pipeline of skills and competencies. Digital academies created in the U.K., Canada, and Singapore, have trained civil servants with both digital and non-digital backgrounds. Between 2014 and 2019, the U.K.’s Government Digital Service Academy trained 10,000 civil servants, local government employees , devolved administrations, and other public servants. In spite of this, a recent report by the House of Commons indicated that digital leadership capabilities, skills and competencies, and central program oversight are still main challenges holding back digital change in the U.K..

More needs to be done to train civil servants at scale and also to build a talent pipeline of future generations of digital-era civil servants. This could be achieved by helping local public and private training centers upgrade their curricula and leveraging existing resources such as the Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age program. This free open access syllabus is designed by leading academics and practitioner-instructors, who teach digital era-skills to public servants from around the world.

Training should extend beyond tech skills and foster the leadership and soft skills needed to support the culture change underpinning digital transformation. This includes interpersonal communication, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving. Creating a classification of digital job families and profiles and associated competencies and skills, should provide the foundation for the upskilling and reskilling strategy, help civil servants manage their career pathways, and conduct workforce planning.

3. Reconfigure the civil service?

Once talent has been recruited and trained, the next challenge is to get it to stick. A 2015 survey by the U.K. National Audit Service found low retention rates among public sector data and technology leaders, with most of them staying  in their jobs for less than two years. High turnover generates significant costs for governments in recruitment, training, and lost productivity[1]. Although tech talent is highly mobile and difficult to retain in general, a growing body of evidence points to the less stimulating and innovative work (especially when dealing with legacy systems) and prevailing public-sector culture as the culprits for this. This includes bureaucratic and hierarchical management, rigid procurement practices, and fewer opportunities for career advancement.  

These challenges point to a bigger issue, of whether the old model of career civil service is truly compatible with digital transformation. Creating a digital culture that embraces change, learning, and failure, and empowers workers to be creative, has far reaching implications for human resource management.  Creating “digital delivery institutions” within government that work outside the constraints of bureaucracy or offering more appealing working conditions, for example through hybrid work, could help attract talent. But more drastic civil service modernization may be required to bring government models and all their legacy systems into the modern internet era.


Authors’ Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts on digital skills. It will be followed by case studies from countries on building internet-era capabilities.

[1] A 2019 study evaluates that cost at £36 to £74 million annually across the entire UK civil service.

Join the Conversation