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Digital Leaders Study 2023

Managing the digital workforce

Finding 5

Good progress has been made on capabilities at the junior and middle levels, though there’s a need to further organise and develop digital workforces

Gayan Peiris, Head of Data and Technology, United Nations Development Programme: permitting remote working has “allowed us to bring in highly skilled data talent that don’t live in megacities.”


Developing the digital workforce is absolutely central to effective transformation, which typically demands that civil servants take on strategic and delivery work previously outsourced to big IT firms. With the possible exception of Israel – which leans heavily on its thriving tech sector – all the most advanced digital nations have prioritised this agenda in recent years; but there is a long tail of governments whose progress has been slow. Asked in a survey whether their countries have built large, skilled workforces of digital professionals (see graph F), one third of the digital leaders attending our People and Skills workshop said this was ‘largely true’ but the same proportion that it was ‘largely untrue’.

Graph F: Workforce management 1

Graph F: Workforce management 1
Graph F

Although most digital and IT staff are employed in departments and agencies, workforce development generally requires coordinated action across government (see Solution 1). Absent a cross-government approach, rising demand for digital skills can lead to destructive competition for talent between departments – driving up salaries and causing excessive ‘churn’ in digital teams. With central management providing clear career pathways and staff development across the civil service, on the other hand, government can provide a much more attractive offer to ambitious digital professionals.

The digital leaders attending our workshop clearly recognised both the importance of central coordination, and the fact that most have a long road to travel still. Asked whether their country needs cross-government systems to support career planning, training and staff deployment, two thirds replied that this was ‘completely true’ and a third ‘largely true’. However, asked the current state of these capabilities, no respondents called them ‘advanced’, and only one ‘developed’; the other responses ranged from ‘none’ to ‘basic’.

A separate survey, of digital leaders attending our Vision and Planning workshop, asked respondents to rate both the importance of various digital agendas, and the extent to which their country’s digital strategy addressed them (see also Finding 1). By far the greatest gap concerned the creation of “a digital workforce with the required skills, capacity and distribution”, which scored 4.75/5 on importance but 3.25/5 on delivery. It is crucial that national digital strategies set out how to attract and retain talent, building capacity (equally, digital workforce plans must be built around the priorities and targets set out in national digital strategies).

Photo Chan Cheow Hoe
Chan Cheow Hoe, Chief Digital Officer of Singapore and Deputy Chief Executive of its Government Technology Agency, speaking at the Government Digital Summit in 2019

Ever since Singapore decided to in-source much of its IT work, its government has put enormous efforts into building its digital workforce. Speaking at the Government Digital Summit in 2019, Chan Cheow Hoe, the country’s Chief Digital Officer and Deputy Chief Executive of GovTech – its central delivery team – explained that its programmes begin with technology camps for schoolchildren: “That sparks interest at an early age,” he commented. Its offer continues through internships and graduate scholarships to accelerated development schemes for technical specialists.

Unlike almost every other government, Singapore pegs civil service digital salaries to those in the private sector – addressing the pay gap that so hampers recruitment and retention elsewhere (see Finding 6) – but the country’s experience also provides more transferable lessons. Recruiters emphasise the opportunity to create public services benefiting employees’ family and friends, for example, and managers try to build workforce cultures in which staff are encouraged to be agile, bold and collaborative – attracting the most entrepreneurial and adventurous people.

Focusing on workforce diversity can also provide a major boost for recruitment, as can progressive HR policies (see Solution 2). And a strong, ongoing training offer is as key to retaining staff as it is to building capability. As one participant in our People and Skills workshop commented, civil services need to get to the point where “people start to see developing talent as a core part of their job. We’re not there at the moment: there are some really good pockets of excellence, but there’s still a heavy focus on delivery, and an acceptance that it’s okay to choose not to develop your talent and remain dependent on contractors.”

While developing their digital workforces, governments must also act to strengthen knowledge of digital technologies among other professionals (see Solution 3). Digital programmes and reforms often founder when senior leaders (see Finding 7) and professionals in key fields such as finance, HR and policy don’t recognise their benefits for citizens, taxpayers and their own working lives, or understand their own roles in removing the barriers to digital transformation.

When recruiting digital professionals, most governments find themselves at a disadvantage relative to private sector employers – which typically often substantially greater salaries. But civil service organisations do have advantages over their business rivals, including their sense of social purpose and commitment to equalities issues. The challenge then becomes to retain incoming staff, particularly as their developing skills and expertise make them ever more attractive to private employers; salary gaps are typically greater in more senior roles. Hence the importance of strengthening career pathways and staff development, presenting talented digital professionals with such a clear and attractive future in the public sector that job offers from businesses represent not an opportunity, but a distraction.


1/ Develop cross-government workforce management and career pathways

Strengthening central management of the digital workforce can much improve the recruitment, retention and development of digital professionals. Such cross-government action can of course also impinge on the autonomy of departments – but most departmental leaders recognise both the challenges they face in building digital capabilities, and the potential advantages of a unified approach. Where programmes are developed in partnership with departments and designed to address their own pain points, forward-looking organisational leaders will get on board.

Asked the importance of various aspects of workforce management, respondents to a survey of participants attending our People and Skills workshop put in joint first place ‘cross-government recruitment systems and career pathways for digital staff’: the average answer was 4, ‘very important’. This was also the field in which they saw the greatest gap between need and delivery: asked the current state of their capabilities here, the average response was 2.3 – where 2 meant ‘minimal’ and 3 ‘basic’. Also scoring 4 was the centre’s ability to ‘deploy staff into departments to assist with transformation projects’; the average answer on capabilities here was ‘basic’ (see graph G). Other valuable strands of workforce management include the provision of cross-government training; support for departments’ digital team-building work; and the creation of networks serving particular specialisms or roles.

Graph G: Workforce management 2

Graph G
Graph G

One early task is that of understanding the current shape and state of governments’ digital workforces. In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) specified 39 job roles – each comprising 3-4 competence tiers, subdivided into three attainment levels – then assessed all 17,000 digital, data and technology (DDAT) professionals against the framework. This both presented a clear picture of the DDAT professions’ departmental and geographical distribution, providing the intelligence required to redeploy staff to the areas of greatest need, and enabled GDS to set a single cross-government pay framework: this ensured equity across the workforce, eased departmental recruitment, and created a common foundation for cross-government career pathways.

Central digital teams can also play a valuable role in aiding recruitment – from the most junior digital roles to the most senior. Services such as digital apprenticeships, graduate training programmes and accelerated development schemes are far more effective and attractive when offered at a government-wide level, securing economies of scale and strengthening the offer to recruits. Like multinational businesses, digital government workforce managers can reach out to undergraduates with the offer of an interesting, varied and well-supported career. “We need to be building relationships with our potential capacity more effectively,” said Alison Pritchard, the UK’s Deputy National Statistician for Data Capability and a former GDS head.

At the executive end, digital centres can get involved in recruiting and placing CIOs. Canada has made progress here, explained the country’s Chief Data Officer Stephen Burt. “It’s been a success in terms of cutting down timelines and doing better matchmaking,” he commented. “But it still requires a willing deputy minister, who will take the candidate that you think is best for them.” Ultimately, he added, the goal is to introduce a “dotted line” of management accountability back from departmental CIOs to overall Canadian Government CIO Catherine Luelo, supporting better strategic coordination across government. The UK is moving in a similar direction, explained Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) Chief Executive Officer Megan Lee Devlin: her office is now “playing a much bigger role in the appointment of senior digital leaders,” with the government’s Chief Digital Officer or the CDDO Chair sitting on CIO appointment panels.

These examples illustrate the power of cross-government action to smooth and strengthen recruitment at every level, fattening the talent pipeline – and this is just one field of workforce management. Departments may initially be wary of moves to expand the role of the centre, but here the benefits for all do clearly outweigh the costs for each.

2/ Put diversity and equality at the heart of your offer to digital professionals

Action to improve your digital workforce’s diversity is likely to strengthen capability in many ways. There is strong evidence that diverse teams both gather and process facts more carefully in decision-making, and generate more innovation – approaching problems from a wider range of angles, and considering other’s perspectives more carefully. In designing policies and services, diverse teams are more likely to understand the needs and interests of a wide range of users, improving the quality of their solutions. And when employers remove the discriminatory barriers that hamper some people’s careers, they can fish for staff in a bigger pool – broadening their options, and thus increasing their chances of finding a great match for any particular job.

The pandemic-driven shift towards remote and flexible working can assist here – making it easier for people with caring responsibilities, those living in remote areas and disabled people to take jobs. Gayan Peiris, Head of Data and Technology at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), explained that his organisation has brought in new contracts to permit consultants to work remotely. “This new modality is more inclusive,” he said, adding that it has “allowed us to bring highly skilled data talent that don’t live in megacities.”

Strong, effective policies on equalities issues also help public organisations to compete for staff – counter-balancing companies’ ability to pay higher salaries. Many IT companies’ workforces and leadership cadres are dominated by white men, making them unattractive employers for ambitious female or ethnic minority digital professionals. It’s notable that “there are a lot more women and people of colour in senior positions in government” than in the private sector, commented one departmental CIO.

Many would be amply qualified for more highly-paid private sector roles, but find themselves excluded by bias in appointments processes – so government “gets diversity – but at the cost of continuing to build the pay gap between women and minorities, and white men,” the CIO concluded. “It’s an interesting trade-off.”

3/ Establish a digital academy serving civil servants in every profession

When in 2013 I became Director General of Business Transformation at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions, I soon realised that I faced a major task in explaining my agenda. It was obvious that I would not be able to make rapid progress on transformation until the senior leadership team and service owners understood both the potential of digital technologies, and how working practices and organisational processes would have to adapt around their requirements.

My solution was the Digital Academy, which trained 5000 staff across the UK over the following three years – 80% of them not digital practitioners, but senior leaders and other professionals who need to understand digital technologies and techniques. The Academy ran courses, for example, on ‘Agile’ project management for policymakers, operational staff and service managers. I found that once about 10% of the whole workforce had a good grounding in digital technologies, a tipping point was passed and resistance to new ways of working diminished. This in turn permitted a gentler use of hard levers such as spend controls by the digital centre, shifting towards a more collaborative approach that itself won the agenda more support among departmental leaders.

When I moved to the Cabinet Office to lead the Government Digital Service in 2016, the Academy followed me – though with an altered remit: its new goals were to develop the digital, data and technology workforce, and to retrain civil servants from other professions to swell its ranks. Since then, thousands more civil servants have undertaken courses, and the model has been followed by other public bodies: an NHS Digital Academy and Scottish Digital Academy have now been established, among others. Work to improve understanding of digital among senior leaders remains at the heart of the UK’s agenda: the government has promised to upskill 90% of senior civil servants in digital and data by 2025, and is developing a Digital Excellence Programme for senior leaders.

Academies can play an immensely valuable role in improving skills – both for digital professionals and, equally importantly, among others whose engagement and support is critical to effective transformation. As one senior official commented at the 2022 Government Digital Summit: “There is no technology problem that is not actually a business problem, so it’s imperative that we get the subject matter experts who deliver services to understand how to think differently about what they want from IT professionals.”

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