How can we plug the digital skills gap in Government?

It’s no secret that the UK is facing a huge digital skills shortage. As the economy begins to transform itself over the next couple of decades, the skills required for a global workforce will also evolve. But how can government departments ensure they are skilled or shall we say ‘up-skilled’ enough to deal with this change? As an account manager at Delib, I work with a huge number of government employees who have varying degrees of digital skills.  If I’m a little frank, I’m often a little taken back by the stark gap in basic digital skills across government.

Computers/word processors at NIHE (1)
Photo from Glucksman Library on Flickr

There are certainly movements in the right direction; GDS launched its digital and technology skills site in March 2015 in an attempt to both identify the skills needed to work in a digital roles. The Civil Service also runs a dedicated technology fast stream and the role of ‘Chief Digital Officer’ has recently been created. BIS, for example, now has a CDO.

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But what can government departments look to do now? Are there any ideas or skills I would share with them to begin plugging the digital skills gap? ‘Yes’ is the answer, and don’t worry you don’t need to be paying your employees to sit and learn to code.

The starting point for any organisation looking to change should be its people. I’m a great advocate of hiring the right people and training for skills. If a new employee is keen enough they will learn digital skills. I’d argue that ‘soft’ digital skills such as becoming familiar with using a CMS (Content Management System) can be easy to teach. Most of the people I’ve hired at Delib had never worked with or in a digital industry before and have learnt the digital skills needed on the job. That said, it’s important to be careful about going to the other extreme and hiring ‘digital gurus’ who think they know about all things digital which turns out to be all chat.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 15.31.56Encouraging employees to become digitally native in their everyday lives can also improve their general confidence in using digital tools.  Often employees will learn by doing, and learning by doing something relevant to them will often help that knowledge to ‘stick’. Enabling employees to tweet or attend relevant conferences can help. Having a little bit of free time to explore digital opportunities also doesn’t hurt. At Delib, we used to give developers some ‘play time’ enabling them to spend a day looking into a new technology or use of our products.

“Do it until you’re told not to”  Tiffany St James

For those who are keen, give them the opportunity to become a digital specialist in their team. With three main products and three account managers it made sense for us to make each account manager a product specialist. We now take on product management duties and are the go-to person for that application. Promoting employees to digital leads within their team enables smaller teams to be self-sufficient and ensures that the departments’ overarching digital team don’t become the main support desk.

You may not be aware of it, but your new starters might have previously used a tool which you too are interested in using. By creating a skills bank, which could simply be a log of skills and tools in which employees are competent, you’ll be able to track who’s good at what and identify any skill gaps. In our case, we’ve hired people who have used MailChimp (a mailing tool) regularly in a previous role who were then able to allay the frustrations for the rest of us reviewing the tool for the first time.

Developing an internal knowledge base or reference point for digital terms, policies and skills can also be hugely beneficial. Be careful about not re-writing existing websites though – e.g. w3skills is a fantastic resource for learning basic HTML skills and much better than us trying to document this all ourselves.

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 15.45.39Already run a digital project? Found things that went well and not so well? Run a retrospective of the project. This could be a short discussion with everyone involved in the project or it could be a short report that reviews the project as a whole. If the project went well, consider creating internal case studies. After running their first challenge using our Dialogue application, the Scottish Government blogged about their experiences – a great example of being open and transparent about lessons learnt.

A final thought – with the ‘digital by default’ agenda steaming ahead, it has to be ok for people to be able to say if they don’t understand something or if they have never been shown how to do it. And if someone does pluck up the courage to say they’re finding it a bit hard, then it’d be great if they can then get some support to pick up the skills they feel they need.

For those who learn via explanation, an option is to offer digital drop-in sessions, which is something BIS have chosen to do. It’s also handy to make a list of the digital tools available in your team. GDS created a great guide to tools available to civil servants which can act as a useful starting point.

If digital skills and experience in running digital projects is all tied up with specific people rather than across the board – and we hear this frequently, “oh I’ll just ask Sarah, she knows how to do this stuff” – then it remains tacit knowledge only. Tacit knowledge can be difficult to pass on, and the real risk is if those holding it move roles or leave government. So now is the time to provide more people with the skills to lead in this area. More than this, there is a really positive opportunity here for government; by improving the digital skills across its own workforce, could government then begin to lead in advancing the digital skills of its citizens?