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The public sector must make the right digital choices to attract top talent

‘Great place to work’ lists are regularly peppered with well-established organisations, though they now feature more technology companies than representatives from any other sector.

This is because tech companies tend to invest in workplace innovation as a core strategy. Encouraging employees to explore new ways of working can nurture better-connected cultures and accelerate product development.

Fast-growth technology businesses such as Atlassian, for example, attract talent with modern work practices supported by digital technology at almost every touchpoint.

Though the Atlassian success story told by the media often mentions high valuations year on year, the company’s own telling frequently references a workplace culture that embraces transparency, fosters a sense of belonging and helps people form connections. And its digital tools support that culture by design.

Flexibility, connection and new skills are top priorities

Tech companies weren’t the only winners during the mass digital transformation spurred by the pandemic. Workers with the digital tools to do their jobs remotely gained a little (or a lot) more flexibility. Some found the same tools could accelerate their skills development and strengthen their connections, despite being physically distanced.

A primary aim of the Australian public service digital government initiative is to deliver more opportunities for workers to tap the benefits of digital in their careers, explains Jo Cantle, APSC digital workforce strategy and frameworks lead.

“We’re not just looking at it from a pipeline perspective, and not even just from an upskill perspective, but also a reskill – and all of the foundational pieces that go into making that up,” she says. “So even the digital literacy and fluency training we’re looking at will make sure we’ve got an entire workforce that is digitally literate.

“We’ve done a lot of work looking at career paths and learning pathways to help existing public servants pursue data and digital careers, but also to show people coming into the service that there are career and learning paths within the APS in digital and data.”

Being more familiar with some of the significant benefits of digital, future employees will expect more flexibility and opportunities to reskill or upskill, notes Tim Minahan, executive VP of business strategy at cloud technology business Citrix, in the Harvard Business Review article ‘What your future employees want most’.

“Businesses that want to attract and retain the talent they need to move forward must understand the top priorities of their future workforce,” he writes. “They must embrace new, flexible work models and cultivate a workforce that can design their own careers.”

There’s no doubt that young Australians want to pursue careers in information technology. A Universities of Australia 2020 report shows IT undergraduate courses attracted the third-highest growth in enrolments (63.4% growth) between 2008-2018, after health (78.1%) and sciences (64.6%).

Through its growing career development resources hub, the federal government’s digital profession program aims to attract more tech graduates to the APS. This has also been designed to help “lift the digital capability of the APS” with pathways for existing public servants.

“The APS professions were established to help better focus efforts on uplifting our workforce capability in critical skill areas such as digital and data,” says Cantle. She points to digital profession activities that include targeted training, events and communities of practice.

“We’re trying to capture all our digital practitioners within the service, whether they’re entry-level, specialist practitioners or working in the field. We have a lot of members from state and local governments as well as industry where they connect and share what they’ve learnt. We send a newsletter out to them, so they have that cross-jurisdictional and cross-industry connection as well.”

“Being a member of an APS profession allows them to be part of that broader community. They can share experiences and lessons learnt through failures to generate that growth in capability more broadly.”

Slowing down the outsourcing trend

Building technology capabilities in-house hasn’t always been an APS priority. As far back as 2001, the whole-of-government IT outsourcing initiative that began in the 1990s was described as ‘controversial’ in several parliamentary briefs.

A June 2001 brief described the “substantial shift in the commonwealth government’s approach to service provision” from developing capabilities in the APS to outsourcing. The authors commented that Australia joined the trend towards outsourcing IT alongside other Anglo-American countries (including the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada), which also became reliant on private and voluntary sectors in the provision of government services “possibly due to our relatively low levels of taxation, leading to greater budgetary pressure, or perhaps to a more general willingness to converge the public and private sectors”.

Tellingly, the authors said: “As the commonwealth’s experience with outsourcing grows, it is becoming apparent that this approach can fundamentally change the character of service delivery.”

Twenty years later, in March 2021, the Community and Public Sector Union made multiple submissions to the finance and public administration references committee stating its view that decades of underinvestment and outsourcing meant the IT capability in the APS was ‘substandard’ and skilled APS ICT workers were leaving agencies such as Services Australia because they no longer felt they had career opportunities.

These submissions referenced a September 2020 report by the ABC that found the federal government had spent more than $5 billion a year on labour-hire and consultants.

Improving APS tech capabilities

These days, the APS career pathfinder tool managed by digital profession is described as ‘part of the strategy to attract and develop digital talent for the APS and commonwealth’.

It provides descriptions of more than 150 digital role types, with lists of skills to develop before applying for a role, suggestions of skills that could be learnt on the job and recommended development plans.

Meanwhile, digital profession’s resources for agencies and teams focus on helping team managers and HR managers in the APS recruit and develop staff with specialist digital skills, develop women digital leaders and improve the digital literacy of senior leaders.

“Establishing centres of excellence and communities of practice across different disciplines in the public service has helped bridged that gap [between agencies and departments],” explains Cantle. “It will also bring representatives from different agencies together so they can more readily collaborate.

“There’s certainly a lot of interest and support for looking at end-to-end life journeys using the user-centred approach. There’s significantly more user research and user-experience design, and that’s making a huge difference. We are designing services with people, not just for people.”

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