How government agencies are building digital capability across the workforce

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday September 7, 2020


Public service agencies across Australia must adapt to the rapidly changing world. Cultivating a digital mindset, upskilling staff and removing barriers to digital capability can help the public service keep up.

To help staff thrive in the digital world, the Digital Transformation Agency has been increasingly viewing digital capability in a layered approach, according to the head of the agency’s capability branch, Vanessa Roarty.

The first layer involves the foundation digital skills that all staff need in order to work effectively in the digital environment.

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“So they might not be working directly on digital service delivery, but they need to use digital tools more effectively to have the most impact and to be as effective as possible,” she told a recent event on designing digital public services, hosted by Mentally Friendly.

Vanessa Roarty

Attracting and building digital specialists in the DTA as well as digital professionals across the Australian Public Service is also important. This is followed by thinking about digital leaders — the right people who can see the risks and the opportunities that emerge from the current environment.

“And it’s a real challenge for all leaders across the APS to be able to respond in that way, and they may not have come through as CIOs or CTOs, but may all of a sudden be managing a service or a business area that has a really strong digital delivery focus to it.”

Another layer involves empowering agencies to build the digital talent they need, and setting HR and transformation teams up for success so they can get the right digital talent in place. Removing any barriers to people building capability or from having a career in digital comes next, Roarty says.

“We know that there are not enough women in digital, for example, so how do we remove some of those barriers? We don’t have enough digital people, we don’t have enough digital capability, we can’t afford for half the population not to be engaging as much as they can in digital skills and digital careers, so that’s really important to us as well.”

The final layer involves identifying not just the specific digital skills needed for the current environment, but thinking about how to be more agile, responsive and nimble in developing capabilities for the future.

“We actually don’t know what we might need in 12 months time. If anything, this is what this time has taught us. So how can we think about how we attract staff and skill up staff really quickly to respond to those unknown things that are coming in the future?”

Cultivating a digital mindset

The definition of digital must be clearer, and shouldn’t be limited to “the realm of learning and development”, according to Timothy Falchi, director of strategic design at Services Australia.

“For us, one of the key things we want to do is not to be constrained [by the idea] that it’s a learning and development function. Learning in a digital environment is also about being ready for contemporary environments and digital isn’t constrained just to the workplace,” he told the conference.

Tim Falchi

Falchi believes the new digital profession has been helpful in redefining digital across the Australian Public Service, as it recognises more than just technical skills.

Within his own agency, organisational changes initiated under the leadership of CIO Michael McNamara have placed a greater focus on the “customer-centric point of view” as well as the learning needs of staff. Falchi says the pandemic has amplified some of those learning needs, particularly in regards to the outdated view that a digital skillset only relates to using technology.

“We’ve realised in a digital space the bandaiding and workaround that happens behind the scenes really needs to be elevated as a mind set and not just a skill set. And that’s something that we are seeing,” he says.

“How are people agile in mindset as opposed to just practice? What does a growth mindset actually look like? It’s on all of our lists of soft skills we need but pragmatising it and making it real for people … and elevating where it does happen I think is the [necessary] response there.”

Working in different ways as a result of COVID-19 has also prompted “quick management and escalation of delivery” in the agency, spurring it to move beyond the “bandaid” approach to actually restructuring infrastructure, Falchi says.

“One thing I realised quite quickly was how rapidly we can dismiss myths about the way that we work. All of a sudden silos in our organisation that had been there for decades no longer existed, and the capacity to work for a global good was something that really came in.”

Melissa Clemens, executive director of digital and middle office at Service NSW agrees that cultivating a digital mindset is “essential”, and ties into the goal of keeping customers “front and centre” to ensure truly citizen-centric products are designed.

Creating digital products that are as lean as possible and backed by customer research, and developing a good product over time rather than rushing the process is also important.

Getting women into digital

Having flexible working options is key to bringing women into the digital workforce, Roarty says, noting that the pandemic has proven such options are possible.

“In my journey to the position I’m in now, I’ve had children, I’ve had critically ill family members, I’ve had times when I haven’t been able to work for a year or I’ve worked part time for years and years of my career,” she says.

“Ten to 20 years ago there was this idea that you couldn’t make it into the SES if you were working part time, or if you had kids, or if you wanted to go home at 5.30 and cook dinner. I think now is an opportunity where we’ve shown, we’ve had this real life experiment of how everyone can work more flexibly, and it’s been largely successful. Now’s the time to put that into action and use that flexibility to give people the career opportunities who didn’t have them before.”

Melissa Clemens

Meanwhile, Service NSW has partnered with TAFE to run a program comprising of 50% women and 50% men, which offers formal training over three months and a further six months of work. Clemens notes that the agency has employed more than 200 people over the past three months — many of them women.

“What we’ve been able to do is foster the development of women in technology careers, so this is a really exciting program for us. We’ve taken our staff from frontline services — staff who haven’t had an opportunity to undertake further education but show great empathy, and understand our DNA — and we’re actually putting them on a bootcamp,” she says.

“So these people, albeit we’ve had a lot of women, have been able to uplift their whole career in doing digital. They’ve always had a passion for it but it may have been the circumstances weren’t right or they didn’t have the funding or they had to look after their family. This is their fourth week of them coming back from their formal training and back into their workforce and it’s absolutely been wonderful to see the difference the opportunities this has brought to these women.”

She says that while looking to recruit women is important, agencies should also upskill the talent they already have, particularly for those staff who have a passion for digital.

“We need to encapsulate that because we know that they’ve got our DNA, and we need to grow them.”

Continuing to deliver capability uplift

The DTA has developed squads which assist other agencies with digital capability by tailoring to their unique needs. Roarty says this approach is “win-win” because it benefits organisations across the APS while also presenting the squad members with a career development opportunity.

“I guess DTA has always been there to help agencies with digital capability, but we started to, during the early COVID period, reimagine what that service looked like, and we’re now trialling what we call a digital squad-style service. So this is about having digital talent so we can go and work with agencies in small teams in a very targeted way to help with problems or to help build capability,” she explains.

“So at the moment we’re drawing on the DTA talent pool for that but over time we’re really excited about drawing on the APS talent pool more broadly, and giving people to opportunity to be a little bit more mobile, and build and share capability across the APS, without having to leave their agency or go on secondment.”

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