By Korn Ferry

06 Sep 2018

New research indicates the civil service risks losing its most digitally-skilled people, but it doesn’t have to be that way

Efforts by the civil service to go digital have met some growing pains. The Institute for Government last year was critical of the lack of progress in key elements of the government’s transformation strategy, and the National Audit Office has described digital transformation as having a “mixed track record” across government.  This is creating frustration amongst ministers, civil servants, and the public.

One symptom of the problem is that the very people who you'd want to stay – those who identify as more digitally savvy than average – intend to jump ship within the next year. That isn't to say that the civil service doesn't desire to be digital, or that the general staff lack the skills. Quite the contrary. 

The problem is one of emphasis. The civil service already has the firm foundations required to transform itself, but it needs to shift focus from rigid factory-like processes and instead embrace people as individuals. By doing so, the transformation will likely go more smoothly.

In an effort to better understand digital capabilities across government, Korn Ferry partnered with Dods Research in a survey of over 500 civil servants. More than three-in-four (76%) civil servants who intend to leave the service within the next year say that their organisation is not helping staff develop the skills and know-how to maximise their use of digital technology. A similar proportion (77%) of the same group say that their part of the organisation lacks the skills needed to use digital technology effectively.

These workers, who represent approximately 12% of the surveyed civil service population, also self-identify as digitally skilled in higher proportion to the broader civil service community. These potential quitters are of course the people whom the civil service should want to keep, assuming that they have accurately assessed their digital abilities.

Solid foundation 

While these first findings are a little disappointing, other parts of the survey results show that the civil service already has much of what's required to transform itself. We asked respondents to comment on their preferences, using a list of personality traits that Korn Ferry research has shown to help people to be digitally-capable. Encouragingly, the responses showed that many civil servants already possess the key personality traits, even before they acquire the specific digital skills.  

Consider these results from the survey. More than 96% of those surveyed say they like taking responsibility for delivering results.  The same proportion say they want to figure out new ways of working, while four-in-five say they like working in project-based environments. Close to two-thirds demonstrated a comfort with working in unstructured environments, where they get to define the things on which they work. 

The overwhelming majority gave answers demonstrating the personality traits that show they'd be comfortable in a digital workplace. This means that the civil service already has a solid foundation for a digital transformation – it has the right people who are mentally flexible and responsible.

The problems seem to come with getting the necessary validation and support from their organisation. For instance, only half the surveyed employees say their organisation makes quick decisions and encourages testing new ideas via pilot projects. Likewise, slightly more than half of civil servants say that they were encouraged to engage with people outside their organisation to develop new ways of completing tasks. The answers strongly suggest that approximately half those asked believe that efforts to find creative solutions got stymied.

Working in a digital organisation opens the way to creative solutions that were either not possible or weren't feasible in an analogue world. By blocking the creative efforts, whether inadvertently or not, the civil service is missing a massive opportunity. However, the good news is that the people already employed have what they need - the right personalities. All that needs to change is the approach the civil service takes.

The Takeaways 

Overall these findings emphasise the need to focus talent management on people, not process. This thinking is already spreading across government, as performance management moves away from structured processes like using the guided-distribution model for performance ratings.  But the civil service could go further. Recent Korn Ferry research on the latest trends in talent management point to three areas in particular that might help the civil service attract, retain and develop the right people to drive the digital agenda.

First, taking a people-first approach helps individuals to see how the organisation values them as unique individuals, rather than corporate cogs.  This is a vital step towards developing a ‘safe space' to create and experiment with behaviours central to digital success. This is particularly important for organisations like government, where people easily feel lost in the bureaucracy.

Second, we found that organisations increasingly need to think about capabilities rather than roles. This recognises the pace at which the world is changing and the futility of reducing jobs to a task list.  

Smart organisations constantly redefine themselves and the tasks that they complete. Those reinventions have big implications for the way talent is managed. For the government, reinvention poses some significant but important challenges including asking some tough questions. In short, the government must think about what it really needs to be good at in a dynamic digital society.

Finally, we've found that top-performing organisations focus on career development rather than skills for specific roles. By doing so, people know that their employer cares about long-term success rather than just short-term challenges, which builds commitment. Better still, taking this approach helps meld an individual’s career goals with organisational needs. In a fast-changing world, this focus on the future rather than the here-and-now is crucial.

No one can ignore digital, and that includes government. This digital transformation is necessary to meet the challenge of serving an unpredictable, demanding society, one made tougher by Brexit. The people working in government will make this successful, and our work has shown that the government has the raw materials it needs in its workforce. But, like every other major employer in the British economy, it needs to find new ways to lead, support and sustain its people.


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