By Joshua.Chambers

01 Nov 2012

As government departments and agencies embrace the use of websites in public service delivery, Joshua Chambers reports on an online debate about the challenges involved in improving Whitehall’s digital skills.

Ninjas in bowler hats. That was the best way CSW could visualise how civil servants must act in order to meet the challenges of putting public services online: they must be agile, flexible, quick to learn, adaptable, calm under pressure, and able to stick to their training and the all-important Civil Service Code in an environment where immediacy is everything.

To debate the skills civil servants must learn in ‘digital dojos’, and to better understand how ministers and permanent secretaries want officials to work, CSW teamed up with professional resourcing specialist Experis to hold an online debate addressing the question: ‘How must the civil service improve its talent management and recruitment in order to deliver digital services?’

Jerry Arnott, the head of the pan-government training agency Civil Service Learning (CSL), kicked off the discussion. Arnott focused on the change in attitudes that will be needed, describing the “requirement for all civil servants to embrace the vast potential of technology” as “one of the fundamental challenges within the civil service reform agenda”.

One of his solutions was to encourage and support staff to think about service users’ needs: “The real benefits of the digital world can only be appreciated through the customers’ eyes.” In practice, he said, this requires not only computer literacy, but also specific training in change management and continuous improvement to establish a digital environment. Meanwhile, Barbara Burden – one of many civil servants who contributed – said that, in her experience of working on digital delivery in government, civil servants will also need skills in enterprise architecture, project management, auditing, and commercial skills.

Speaking from an IT specialists’ perspective, Alan Ramsden backed Arnott’s call for a wider understanding of the agenda: “Without policy, security, operations and HR colleagues equipped for the change to come, we will not achieve the outcomes that are hoped/expected.” However, another civil servant, Carolyne Thompson, suggested that this works both ways: IT specialists must get a handle on the organisation’s wider needs. “My experience of working on projects with IT colleagues is that even with the best will in the world, it takes a long time for them to gain good understanding of working practices and business requirements – this often leads to delays on important projects,” she said.

At present, access to training isn’t uniform. “I’m not sure how things are in other areas of the civil service but here in the Ministry of Defence we have had training drastically cut to just mandatory courses,” said Alan Watters. “We therefore need to open the funding again so that the appropriate up to date training can be accessed.” Neil Ashforth agreed with Watters, adding that “as we are all being asked to produce more work for less money – that’s not just [lower] wages but less money spent on equipment – is there the spare time for the workforce to upskill?” Time allowed for training is a matter for individual departments, but Arnott said that his vision is for training to be widely available online, including via e-learning, ‘just-in-time’ guides, fact sheets, mobile applications and, “soon to come, social networking media.”

Greater use of social media met with approval from Ken Gamble, who said “cuts to training budgets are one of the things we will have to accept. However, if we gave staff open access to social media in the workplace then I am sure upskilling would evolve.” He added that “I do not think that departments have really grasped the digital age in a basic way. The ability to let staff work remotely is one of these. Digitalisation is not just about channel shift for customers; it is also about demonstrating to our own staff the possibilities.” When pressed on the possibility of civil servants wasting time on the web, he said he thought access should only be provided for civil servants during their lunch breaks.

Certainly, many civil servants already have access to social networks on their own devices – but their work IT lags behind, Arnott said. “It is slightly odd, in my view that, for many of us, we take for granted in our daily personal lives the full benefits of the online age, transacting many different services, networking with others and simply accessing information… yet in the workplace, our relative usage is limited, sometimes due to technical limitations or, more likely, because we have simply not been given access to some of these services.”

Arnott said that the civil service’s “digital champions,” who work with Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online 2012 to encourage people to use the internet, must lead by example to encourage wider uptake of new technology. However, one digital champion, Karen Hughes of the Department for Work and Pensions, complained that talent isn’t being properly identified or utilised at present in Whitehall and wondered “how many other keen and well-qualified people joined [the civil service] with high hopes, but have left because their skills go unnoticed and unused.”

The chief information officer of the Department for Education, Tim Wright, admitted of the IT profession that “in truth we don’t really know what ICT capability we’ve got across government. People see themselves [as being] locked in by their job, in terms of ‘department-organisation-job description.’ That needs to change, everyone needs to start thinking of themselves as belonging to a single government ICT profession.”

Wright, who is a member of the CIOs council, said the IT profession has conducted an assessment of its senior talent, and pointed out that the Civil Service Reform Plan says talent should be managed and deployed corporately across government.

This is certainly not the case now, others pointed out. Rob Wilson warned that job opportunities are not well-advertised to lower grades, and that “from time to time we have had bans on level transfers” – sideways movements between departments. Dave Collier said that currently “some staff end up in roles where they have no passion or drive for the work”.

Mike Falvey, the chief people officer of HMRC, said that a key challenge for his organisation is how to manage talent. “Every manager has the responsibility to harness the talent of their people and we provide a range of tools and training to help them do this.” In particular, he cited 360-degree appraisals for senior civil servants, and a number of talent schemes to encourage junior grades to seek promotion. Meanwhile, Wright said that the government has established a senior ICT talent forum, chaired by government CIO Andy Nelson, to manage the careers of high-potential staff.

Another challenge for the civil service is recruitment, Falvey said, citing the Fast Stream as crucial to bringing in new talent. Wright also noted its importance, pointing out that its ‘Technology in Business’ operation is set to be expanded, and that a new IT Apprentice Scheme is being established to encourage other levels of entry. Helen Lumb said that, as the mother of a 21-year-old with IT skills, “recruitment needs to be aimed where he looks: social media.”

Meanwhile, recruitment specialist Martin Ewings of Experis said: “Attracting, retaining and developing the best talent means positively differentiating departments from the market as a whole. That means building a unique story around not just the role, but the environment and culture that employees work within.”

Of course, all the respondents were too polite to mention another key factor in recruiting and retaining staff: pay. As former cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell warned last month, talented staff in many areas of delivery are being lured away to the private sector. Similarly, the civil service will need to invest in good equipment to keep digital efforts up-to-date. Everyone can see the difference between a cutting-edge computer and a basic laptop. In ninja terms: as the civil service trains, it needs to be equipped not with samurai swords, but with light sabres.

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