All APS staff expected to learn data skills and literacy

By Stephen Easton

September 2, 2016

Federal mandarins have moved to address a growing shortage of data skills and literacy among public servants, part of a world-wide trend that is not sector-specific. They see a critical need to upskill the whole workforce.

All public servants need basic data skills to do their jobs well alongside colleagues with specialist expertise in the area, federal mandarins believe.

A new roadmap sets out the training programs that will give the Australian Public Service the wholesale data literacy and skills upgrade it sorely needs in the view of senior public servants and the Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation, Angus Taylor.

The new data skills and capability framework, published on Thursday, aims to head off a “forecast shortfall in data skills” expected to emerge in the public sector — and the wider business world, for that matter — according to Taylor.

It has been in the works since last December, when it was recommended by a study into public sector data management commissioned by Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson.

Federal secretaries believe skills in publishing, linking and sharing public data will be increasingly crucial for general public service work in the future: producing evidence-based advice, finding new efficiencies, raising service delivery standards and even stakeholder engagement.

The junior minister expects the short term job placements with data specialists, university courses, training partnerships and the “data literacy program” in the plan to improve just about every aspect of the APS. He said in a statement:

“It is important – both in government and in non-government sectors – that we remain committed to improving the data skills and capability of our workforce. Data skills are critical for developing evidence-based policy, which is so important in improving the lives of Australians.”

“One of the training initiatives will be a Data Fellowship, to place nominated employees within the CSIRO’s Data 61 team or with select private sector organisations to help the APS maintain world-leading capabilities.”

The new booklet acknowledges that “while foundational data skills are important for all APS employees, some roles require more specialised data skills” and defines what some of these are.

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Alongside the data analysts, there’s generic descriptions of data policy and law experts, infrastructure engineers,  data architects and data scientists, who combine analysis with software programming skills, business acumen and communication skills, according to PM&C.

The head agency has partnered up with the private and academic sectors, the Australian Public Service Commission and other federal agencies to carry out its “holistic approach” to service-wide upskilling.

The data fellowship component will be open to just 10 lucky public servants each year, “high performing candidates” nominated by the data champion in their neck of the woods. They will spend three months with either Data61 or a relevant business:

“Participants will bring a data-related problem or opportunity for which they will develop a solution that will benefit their agency.

“Based on the nature of the participant’s problem, Data61 and the participant will work together to scope and determine the most suitable placement.

“After the successful completion of the placement, participants will attend an achievement ceremony with the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Data Fellows will become part of an alumni network for future Data Fellows.”

Data fellows will then be expected to sprinkle their newfound expertise around the agencies they work for.

It’s not just in the public sector where data skills are in short supply and — along with a range of other digital technology skills — need to be enhanced significantly in mainstream workforces. Taylor’s media statement notes:

“There is a global under-supply of data-related skills. In 2011, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that by 2018 the United States alone would face a shortage of approximately 140,000 to 190,000 people with complex analytical skills and a shortage of 1.5 million managers and analysts to analyse big data and make decisions based on their findings.”

The new booklet also lists a range of university qualifications and shorter professional development courses and explains the basic data literacy program, which was developed with the help of the Australian Taxation Office and Australian Bureau of Statistics.

It addresses five core elements of data literacy: providing evidence for decision makers, conducting research, using statistics, visualising the information, and telling the story.

PM&C’s new framework also encourages agencies to make use of ongoing training partnerships between the APS and organisations with “relevant technical expertise and knowledge” of which there are currently three: the Open Data Institute Queensland, Office of the Australian Information Commissioner and the Data to Decisions Cooperative Research Centre.

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