A digital-ready public service: learning from Canada

By David Donaldson

Thursday March 14, 2019

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As in Australia, the Canadian public service is trying to keep up with technological change and changing customer expectations—all while competing with the private sector for skilled technologists. It’s a problem facing many governments. How can the public service attract and retain people with up-to-date digital skills?

“Government is hamstrung by a skills gap,” argues a report recently published by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.

Recognising these challenges, the think tank has considered how Canada’s public service can improve its digital capability, and for the most part their lessons could equally be applied here.

“Not only does Canada suffer from a shortage of professionals with the skills government needs, but the people who possess digital skills are increasingly in demand in other sectors,” the report reads.

“The skills shortage is most acute in areas including artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, the internet of things, cloud-based development, and matching technology to the specific requirements of users.”

“The absence of diversity in general in the development of digital technologies has been shown to allow bias to be embedded into products and services.”

While Canada’s public service has for a long time been seen as an employer of choice, it is less appealing to many of those who have the skills required.

“The work environment is perceived by some to be hierarchical and slow moving, with limited opportunities for advancement compared to the private sector,” says the report.

A lack of ability to negotiate on pay doesn’t help either.

And while the public service does better than many tech employers on diversity, there’s still a problem with attracting enough women.

“The absence of diversity in general in the development of digital technologies has been shown to allow bias to be embedded into products and services,” says Public Policy Forum.

The way we think about tech jobs is changing too. Often digital skills are equated with computer science and engineering credentials, but technology jobs increasingly require “hybrids” — people who “combine technology with an understanding of organisations, processes, human behaviour and service delivery,” writes the think tank.

“Recent discussions have shifted the focus toward ‘soft skills are hard’ (i.e., difficult to learn and use effectively) and that technical skills for many job functions can be learned more easily.”

Interestingly, Canada also faces one very Canadian problem — requirements for French-English bilingualism reduce the recruitment pool, especially since one-third of tech professionals are immigrants.

Eight recommendations

So, what can be done to narrow this gap and attract a skilled and diverse workforce? The report argues an integrated strategy should include the following:

1. Demonstrate the political will to build a digitally ready public service
Government must communicate the importance of talent and inclusion, and why the public service is a great place to work.

2. Benchmark and develop accountability mechanisms
Apply accountability mechanisms, including measurable targets (which are distinct from quotas) and regular reporting, to set goals and track progress on the recruitment, development and advancement of digital talent.

3. Build a digitally ready and inclusive organisational culture
The public service’s organisational culture must support building workplaces that are stimulating, rewarding, welcoming, inclusive, and provide access to state-of-the art tools to attract digitally ready talent.

4. Modernise human resources and hiring practices
Core skills—especially in analytics, user experience, and artificial intelligence—are shifting away from “code warriors” and toward people who understand how to drive change enabled by technology. Government must update job classifications to reflect current skill needs and apply a critical lens through every stage of human resource processes.

5. Commit to new approaches to training
While engineering and computer science remain important disciplines, for many jobs the foundation can be laid through a variety of roles to which the requisite technology skills can be added. New approaches to training offer alternative pathways to digital roles, support up-skilling existing talent, and build on assets such as “soft skills” or sector knowledge.

6. Apply a gender and diversity lens across the value chain
Progressive, high-performing organisations value diverse perspectives at every level.

7. Build public-private partnerships
Collaborations with the private sector, post-secondary institutions, and non-governmental organisations can provide access to talent, new ideas, and innovative approaches.

8. Rebrand, market and promote government service
The public service needs to build the skills pipeline by better communicating, through multiple channels, the challenges and rewards of a career—or even a stint—in government.

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