Councils have ‘limited understanding’ of digital skills needed by frontline staff
Eduserv report finds that just 3% of local government HR leaders rate digital literacy of frontline staff as ‘good’ - and that traditional, formal training programmes might not be the best option
A survey of local government human resource team leaders has found that frontline staff are perceived to have poor digital skills, but that there is a limited understanding of what skills those employees need.
The work, carried out by not-for-profit IT services company Eduserv, looked at the role HR teams can play in the drive towards digital transformation, making a series of recommendations to encourage council staff to become digitally self-sufficient.
It involved a survey of 87 HR leaders, which found that although 67% said they were making good progress to addressing the skills gap in their organisation, just 3% rated that the digital literacy of frontline and service staff as good.
Eduserv said that the disparity between the two figures was “alarming”, and that it “points to a serious underestimation of the work to be done”.
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The report noted that the skills required by people working in frontline roles, rather than specific IT or digital roles, are vastly different - but that there was “a generally limited understanding of the digital capacity and capability required across frontline and support staff in councils”.
It recommended that HR teams work with IT teams to develop detailed workforce plans to make sure that staff are properly prepared for the increasing use of technology across all council roles.
In addition, the work found that, for councils that had had a digital strategy or overarching plan for technology for some time tended to feel more confident about their staff’s skills.
“There is a perception that the digital literacy among frontline and service staff is very poor,” the report said. “However, those councils who have set a digital objective early and are some way towards their goal, no longer see a skills shortage as a major problem in the broader workforce.”
This change is partly due to attitude and culture within an organisation, the report said, with those councils that have committed to digital ways of working, for instance by creating a situation where people are allowed to get things wrong.
“Those councils that have made change happen have done it by engaging the workforce to adapt their attitudes and behaviours, and the skills they need have (to a large extent) followed from that,” the report said.
Changing the training programme
Concerns were also raised about traditional, or formal, training, which was seen as a barrier to improving digital skills, with informal training that emphasised why learning a new skill would make someone’s job easier generally seen as being more successful.
Another barrier was fear, with some staff worried about being “made to feel stupid”, for instance when they struggle to understand training programmes that are badged as ‘basic’ or ‘easy’.
The report suggested that councils consider show and tells, tips and tricks sessions, and technology cafe events, where people can share learning.
Councils could also appoint digital champions, make sure that someone is available ‘on the floor’ when a new technology is rolled out, or by encouraging those with digital skills to help others, by peer-to-peer learning or upward mentoring.
Another challenge faced by HR teams is in recruitment, with one person who was interviewed as part of the research noting that it had been recruiting for “only the most basic functional IT skills” for a number of years - and based on this assumption had not provided extra training.
“However,” they said, “it is clear that the business requires more than this if we are to respond to the new digital agenda, which will require more than just these basic IT skills. As a result we now need to ensure that we recruit for digital skills and we also need to identify the digital skills gaps in our current workforce so that we can invest in developing these skills for the future.”
The report recommended that all job adverts included requirements for basic digital skills regardless of the service area, that job application processes are carried out digitally and that IT skills are tested during recruitment.
Sue Evans, the report’s co-author and president of the Public Service People Managers’ Association, said that without extra efforts from both HR and IT teams, the public sector would continue having to use outside sources of digital skills to make up the gaps.
“Relying on consultancy and contractors can help, but is not a long-term solution,” she said.
“Councils must build internal capability if they are to exploit the potential of digital opportunity to transform public services. This is essential, not only to meet the expectations, needs and preferences of citizens, but also to create efficiency, increased productivity, greater service capacity and motived and empowered staff.
“This is best achieved when HR and IT work as one, as equal partners from the outset.”
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