The human face of government transformation

A digital workforce will drive the government of the future, but how can you build workers’ skills at pace?

Transformation is gathering momentum across the public sector as governments and other public organizations seek to unleash the power of technology to give citizens a fast, simple and satisfying experience.

But they can’t do this without a highly skilled and motivated workforce that’s comfortable working with digital technology and data, to understand and adapt to changing...

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A digital workforce will drive the government of the future, but how can you build workers’ skills at pace?

Transformation is gathering momentum across the public sector as governments and other public organizations seek to unleash the power of technology to give citizens a fast, simple and satisfying experience.

But they can’t do this without a highly skilled and motivated workforce that’s comfortable working with digital technology and data, to understand and adapt to changing citizen needs by offering increasingly personalized services.

Government leaders responding to the EY 2022 Tech Horizons Survey rank “having the right digital and technology-related skills” as a top-three factor in a successful digital transformation. There’s a particularly urgent need for skills in data and analytics, cloud, and cybersecurity and privacy.

In a world where digital skills are at an absolute premium, governments can’t expect to acquire all these capabilities externally. Two-thirds of respondents say their focus is on re-skilling rather than simply hiring.

The survey highlights several barriers to obtaining digital skills, including inflated salaries, ineffective upskilling programs, and limited awareness of the digital and technology skills needed to transform.

Humans at the center of transformation

Transformation is a challenging prospect for any organization. Research from EY and University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School showed two-thirds of leaders have experienced at least one underperforming transformation during the past five years.

The emotional impact of underperformance is massive. Three-quarters of respondents say their workforce reported negative emotions, including sadness, upset or depression.

Success is heavily rooted in an ability to place humans — both employees and citizens — at the center.

Putting humans at the center of transformation means investing at the outset in building the conditions for success at a rational and emotional level. To maximize success, organizations need to excel at the following six human centered drivers:

  1. Create an inspiring, purposeful vision that everyone can believe in

Look outside for challenging new ideas, and clearly communicate why change is needed.

  1. Build a caring culture that embraces everyone’s opinion

Plan for the emotional journey of the entire workforce, understand the workforce’s emotional state and manage stress, to keep everyone “psychologically safe.”

  1. Build by using technology and capabilities to drive visible action quickly

Use technology to bring vision to life, linking your tech roadmap to the vision. Forty-nine percent of respondents in high-performing transformations say their organizations had the digital skills and mindset needed for transformation versus 35% from low-performing transformations.

  1. Adapt and nurture the necessary leadership skills

Foster leaders who are brave, eager to self-improve, selfless and committed.

  1. Empower by setting clear responsibilities and being prepared for change

Create autonomy to execute by delegating, encouraging experimentation and incentivizing positive behaviors.

  1. Collaborate to connect and co-create

Practicing “radical interdependence,” organizations can foster connectivity and collaboration and help influencers in the workforce co-create new ways of working.

Skilling at scale

The public servant of the future requires not just technical competence, but attributes such

as problem-solving, critical thinking, a capacity for learning, adaptability and empathy.

Upskilling at pace calls for nothing less than a total reimagining of learning and development — something discussed in greater detail in the recent EY Digital State Workforce paper. Conventional training methods need to be replaced with dynamic options carefully tailored to each individual employee’s level of technological maturity. These could include digital academies offering formal training, and self-directed online learning that widens the reach of learning to those less able to attend specific courses. Recent research shows that 84% of learners now prefer self-directed learning.

Internal secondments, job-shadowing, coaching and mentoring all enable on-the-job learning, through work on real-world projects, bridging the gap between classroom and workplace and engaging the participants.

“Social learning” is also gaining popularity, with communities of practice and multidisciplinary teams that cross-pollinate digital skills, bringing together frontline case workers, user experience designers, data scientists, data ethicists and policymakers.

A further route to upskilling is to engage the talent ecosystem, harnessing the expertise of external partners, including big tech businesses, tech startups and academia, to develop and run training programs at relatively lower cost.

Looking outside the organization, governments have a great opportunity to rebrand the public sector by promoting a strong sense of social purpose to attract people seeking greater meaning from work. Other options for accessing talent include flexible opportunities such as shorter-term, project-based employment.

And finally, flexible and proactive approaches to sourcing, selecting and onboarding can help ensure a positive employee experience, with hiring based upon capabilities rather than roles, and a strong emphasis upon diversity.

Equipping the workforce for transformation

Without engaged, digitally skilled workers, public sector organizations will continue to struggle with transformation. As the post-pandemic “great resignation/quiet quitting” phenomenon evolves, governments need to double their efforts to upskill, attract and retain people with essential digital skills.

By creating a diverse, purpose-driven environment, with inspiring and empathetic leadership, multiple development opportunities, and a strong focus on citizen experience, governments can put themselves in a strong position to deliver on their promise of fast, effective, personalized, digitally powered public services.

Shalinder Bakshi is the leader of EY Global’s people advisory services for government and public sector.

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