Not enough chiefs: why agencies struggle to recruit digital leadership

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday July 14, 2015

Everybody’s trying to make sure they aren’t being left behind as the digital revolution reshapes society and the economy. The importance, number and seniority of digital leadership roles in the public sector is clearly on the rise but when it comes to recruiting experts to fill them, it’s looking very much like a seller’s market.

Six federal agencies are currently recruiting CIOs and in many cases, the vacancies have opened up when their incumbents have moved to fill a different hole elsewhere in the Commonwealth bureaucracy. The new Digital Transformation Office found its inaugural leader in the United Kingdom, where he had already successfully transitioned to the public sector, and the ACT government just poached a Kiwi with combined public and private sector experience to lead its digital charge, leaving New Zealand’s Department of Corrections on the hunt for a CIO.

When such roles in the states and territories are considered, a picture of musical chairs emerges across the wider Australian public sector, and indeed within the English speaking world. New high-level digital leadership jobs are being created but there is a limited pool of potential candidates with the right combination of specialist skills — mainly learned in the wider ICT sector — and the know-how to get things done within the machinery of government.

Miguel Carrasco
Miguel Carrasco

Boston Consulting Group partner Miguel Carrasco, managing director of the consultancy’s Canberra office, suggests the Digital Transformation Office’s new chief Paul Shetler (pictured top) will need some support of this kind. He says Shetler’s old boss, UK Government Digital Service executive director Mike Bracken, who came to the role from Guardian News & Media, was well supported behind the scenes by staff who understood how to navigate UK civil service structures.

Carrasco says a broad changing-of-the-guard is unfolding as agencies seek digital leaders and change agents with fresh perspectives and enthusiasm from beyond their own patches, to help them understand the profound social and economic shifts that are occurring. Some pundits liken it to the industrial revolution all over again.

“Organisations respond to these forces and the need to understand what’s going on by creating someone senior in the organisation, who’s responsibility and accountability is to play a leadership role, but the challenge is that you can’t actually delegate it all to just one person,” Carrasco told The Mandarin.

“If we’re right about the way these disruptive forces will play out and impact on society and the economy, it will be everyone’s responsibility to understand. But it is helpful, I think, to have a focal point and to have someone on the executive team — at least in this transitional period — who can play a critical role.”

Getting innovative experts who best understand the wider implications of the digital revolution and possess the full suite of other necessary skills and experience to lead in the public service is difficult for a range of reasons. Chiefly, the money that’s on offer is rarely attractive enough at the higher levels, and many aspects of working in a government bureaucracy can also be unappealing.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t smart people in the public sector, and people who get it,” added Carrasco. “There is a shortage across all large, legacy organisations; they all face the same challenge.”

Getting a good pool of candidates to apply for these jobs and keeping them is one challenge, but other times talented outsiders with disruptive ideas about smashing paradigms and thinking outside the square just don’t work out.

“It’s incredibly tough to make the leap from private to public, and to a lesser extent vice-versa,” said Carrasco. “The public sector ‘antibodies’ tend to be pretty good at resisting outsiders sometimes, and outsiders themselves aren’t always able to adapt to their new environment.”

Of course, there are many notable examples of those who have come in from the private sector and excelled in public service careers. Private sector secondments are also undergoing a revival in the APS, which could help to break down some of the cultural barriers, and with the heads of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury and the APS Commission all having immediately come from outside, perhaps there is no better time to shake things up at Commonwealth level.

But it’s still a tough transition and the value of the skills and experience specific to a particular public service milieu should not be underestimated, according to Carrasco.

“By the time you get to senior roles in the public sector, there’s a lot of context and there’s a lot of knowing how the government works in order to make things happen, and it’s difficult for newcomers who are completely foreign to government to be able to navigate all of that,” he said. “Of course, some of the hardwired legacy is what people are trying desperately to change, but disruption for the sake of it is not helpful; it needs to have a purpose, drive a lasting impact and generate real value.”

Support structures to help outsiders work within the sometimes arcane processes of government agencies are a must, he adds, and while the governance arrangements, decision-making powers and funding for a new CIO or CDO are all major factors, there is no guarantee that whoever lands the job will be a roaring success.

Read more at The Mandarin: 19 reasons why technologists don’t want to work at your government agency


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