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How to Build Digital Talent in the Public Sector

Alex Osborne

The UK public sector remains in a sustained period of deep budgetary constraints. As a result, investment in digital transformation is more vital than ever before, as it delivers the ability to moderate spending while still improving services. Contributor By Alex Osborne, Sales Director – ServiceNow.

However, attracting and retaining digital talent to help facilitate this change is increasingly difficult as skilled digital natives are more often than not choosing to work for high-flying start-ups or applying to private sector graduate schemes.

Indeed, according to a report by the National Audit Office, there’s a digital talent shortfall across every area of government. This is having a severe limiting effect on the ambition and scope of public sector transformation programmes. Rather than fundamental or holistic digital transformation, projects are mainly focused on enhancing “front-end” services.

To reverse the tide, government needs to refresh its approach to tech talent recruitment. Something that needs to be put front and centre of any new approach are new apprenticeship and public sector graduate schemes. Done right, these initiatives could create an upskilled, digital savvy workforce from within.

The challenges of attracting digital talent
Despite the fact that the government has targeted digital transformation as a key priority, there is widespread frustration with the slow pace of change and fundamental issues remain. The HMRC has identified a skills gap of 25% within its IT workforce, and two-fifths (40%) of government organisations lack the skills needed to adapt to digital transformation, which puts the public sector in real danger of falling behind.

Added to this, the 1%-a-year pay rise cap for the public sector is a significant barrier. The private sector tends to pay higher salaries, resulting in many public sector bodies having its best digital talent “poached” by private companies, or other departments within government. This is substantiated by a survey from the National Audit Office, which found digital leaders said pay limitations within government are the biggest obstacle for retaining and recruiting digital talent.

Within the context of a national shortage of IT skills, this is especially concerning as public sector organisations will have a much smaller pool of applicants if the private sector is able to offer consistently more attractive packages. This is why apprenticeships and graduate schemes need to be taken seriously as an alternative to both recruiting and retaining digital talent.

Establishing robust apprenticeships
Apprenticeships are often associated with blue collar professions, but the government is beginning to recognise that it could be the way to go, especially in tech-related fields. The average retention rate for apprentices in the UK is 73%. With a robust system in place, this could build a very strong pipeline of skilled IT workers to help to bridge the skills gap.

The UK government’s Apprenticeship Levy may help, as it is set to both increase the number of students joining apprenticeships and upskill existing staff at the same time. The government’s overall target is to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020, with a target of 2.3% for the public sector workforce annually.

This range of programmes also gives organisations unprecedented access to funds for training that may not have been available in the past, opening up new possibilities for upskilling existing talent within the public sector. In fact, a recent survey found that all public sector employers plan to use the scheme to train existing staff and seven in ten will use the levy to train the 50+ age group, which is the highest proportion in any sector in both cases.

Refreshing perceptions with graduate schemes
In the same vein, the public sector should look to expand its graduate schemes to attract top-tier digital talent too. The public sector needs to shake off its reputation as a technology laggard especially when compared to companies in the FinTech sector or some of the digital ‘majors’. Establishing a prestigious programme that competes with the private sector’s stranglehold on the UK’s reserves could go a long way to attracting talented digital natives to public sector roles.

Another aspect of this need to bolster the perception of the public sector among tech talent is the need to transition away from legacy architectures and embrace the latest tech platforms. The challenges of integrating rapidly growing volumes of data with existing old systems are inherent and graduates aren’t going to want to spend years learning a bespoke software platform that no other organisation uses. A shift to a proven cloud platform, could help to establish public sector organisations as a competitive workplace for the digital workforce and simultaneously supercharge their digital transformation efforts.

Making the public sector an attractive prospect
Defining an effective digital strategy is vital. By reinvigorating the role of digital within the public sector, organisations can create an environment in which joining the industry is an attractive prospect. This can be done by showcasing that digital transformation is a key strategic function and that there are clear structures for job progression from government apprenticeship schemes and graduate programmes.

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