In the war for talent we need a public sector alliance

Chi Onwurah discusses the challenges the public sector faces amid digital transformation and the important role of public sector workers

In October 2014, I gave a keynote speech at the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) 2014 conference. The attendees included people from local authorities, suppliers large and small, trade press and central government, and featured fascinating debates and discussions. Many of the challenges the public sector faces as it transforms services to use new technologies were covered – a good summary is available here.

But one topic that wasn’t discussed enough was the people who work in the public sector.

A question I often asked myself is this: How can we ensure the public sector organisations has the excellent, dedicated people they need for digital transformation?

To put it bluntly, if public sector organisations don’t have the talent they will fail.

A digital transformation project requires many different types of people and skills. It needs leadership that can see the potential of the transformation. It needs digital experts who know how to research needs, as well as design and develop digital services. It needs architects that can design components which can grow into a platform – one that will start reducing ICT costs. 

It needs people who can manage digital projects and others with expertise in contracting suppliers. It needs to involve frontline workers with their invaluable experience of what works and what doesn’t. It also needs to include the people the public sector are providing services to – that is how we can build people-powered services.

If the government could ever sort out the chaos in the departments for data, then it would also need data specialists and people who know how to build and verify services with appropriate levels of security and privacy, but that’s a whole different article.

It is not just in designing and developing transformed services we need great people. When the service is live, service managers and frontline workers will also need to be digital thinkers and doers. As just two examples, digital can provide the frontline with quicker access to information and new ways to stay in touch with its service users. Very quickly you can see that a level of digital skills and thinking is needed in every public sector role.

Most public sector organisations already have some people with this expertise and many others with the capability to learn. But there will need to be serious investment in the right skills and some organisations will have to recruit new staff. If we are to deliver on the promise of digital transformation, public sector workers will need to feel respected and motivated. That respect and motivation creates the spirit of public service so essential to great delivery and the very best citizen experience.

Unfortunately, as Michael Dugher pointed out in his recent Institute for Government speech on civil service reform, too many civil servants are being made to feel like they are "part of the problem, rather than part of the solution."

If we are to deliver on the promise of digital transformation, public sector workers will need to feel respected and motivated

Or, as Jane Dudman put it in an article in a joint report by Deloitte and the think tank Reform: "It’s becoming harder to attract, recruit and retain people for key jobs because public sector jobs are now associated with stress and weak career progression, as well as poor pay and conditions.”

Labour’s Digital Government Review worked with IT recruitment specialists Mortimer Spinks to survey 2,152 technology workers about their attitude to the public sector. The results – which Mortimer Spinks have kindly released as open data – demonstrate the scale of the challenge that the next government will face.

Even if the requirements and remuneration of the job were the same, only 47.4% of these technology workers would choose to take a job in the public sector, while 83.4% would happily work in the private sector. Interestingly, even fewer (41.5%) would work in the public sector via a private sector firm. Maybe that is seen as the worst combination of all.

But it gets worse. Only 15.9% of technology workers think public sector technology work is in the top-three areas that would add value to their CV and experience. E-commerce, startups, software consultancy, fintech and large corporates all score higher.

The war for talent

The recruitment industry talks about the war for talent. One of the skillsets where this war wages fiercest is in technology. All of us who work in technology will have heard stories of university students being approached to sign up for jobs while studying, or of headhunters poaching staff with just a few skills and little experience. And this is just at junior levels.

So, whether it knows it or not the public sector is in a battle with these other sectors.

The public sector has a lot to offer candidates. Few private sector jobs offer the opportunity to build services that improve people’s lives to the same extent as, say, services that improve people’s employment prospects, social care, health care or housing. While the digital challenges are fascinating and unique, there is no private sector organisation that delivers as vast a range of complex services with the unique dynamics created by the different levels of democratic accountability.

We need to talk loudly and proudly about how great a place the public sector is to work

But to win in this war for talent the public sector needs to work together to become a more attractive and, dare I say it, exciting place to work.

Some organisations have already caught our eye in how they are doing this. It was fascinating to see the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) digital team went to the 2014 TechCrunch event, but to address the morale and image problems the next government will inherit, we need similar approaches across the public sector – including central government, local government, health and so on – both inside and outside technology.

We need to include all of the public sector in our alliance. We need to talk loudly and proudly about how great a place the public sector is to work. We need to talk about how digital transformation creates opportunities for public sector workers to develop new skills, to help build better public services and to deliver better outcomes for people and communities. 

We need to excite people and show them that, as part of the public sector, they can help build a better government and a better society – one that works for everyone, not just the few.

Those of us in the heart of the digital transformation and aware of the opportunities feel that excitement already.

We now need to make sure the rest of the public sector find their hearts beating faster at the mention of digital – not out of fear, but because they know it’s our future and they are building it.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour Party's shadow cabinet minister for digital government

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