Council frontline staff lack digital skills competence

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood May 1, 2017
Some 85% of HR managers contacted say the gap is a major impediment to change - with 40% of public-facing team members simply not getting more tech-savvy, says a new report.

Local government efforts to achieve digital transformation face severe challenges due to “inadequate” tech literacy among frontline staff.

This digital skills deficit among those responsible for delivering services is especially marked in this important sector of the workforce - with 40% of Town Hall HR leaders saying there had been no change in the digital skills of frontline workers in the time they’d been tracking such competencies.

As a result, 85% of HR leaders think a lack of skills in this area is holding their organisations back.

The analysis comes in a report from not-for-profit provider of IT services to the public sector Eduserv, working with the PPMA (Public Services People Managers Association), which acts as the voice for Human Resources and organisational development professionals working within the public sector.

The latter says 61% of members surveyed said that digital skills had improved in the last year - but the majority, 66%, said they still need to go further in developing a plan to improve digital skills in their organisations.

Their conclusions are based on discussion with 100 local government public sector professionals in IT, digital services, HR and marketing, plus the views of 87 senior public sector HR professionals and in-depth interviews with 16 individuals with direct experience of the digital transformation initiatives within their organisations. All the research was conduced and finalised last month, so is also very recent, say the pair.

Digital matters because stakeholders told researchers that digital isn’t just an add-on to existing work processes, but calls for a new way of delivering services, like the former Director of People Services at Gloucestershire County Council, Dilsy Wynn:

Digital is about applying a different style of thinking and working. The technology supports a different way of working, but it’s not about the technology itself.

The study also claims that:

Councils recognise the importance of having a digital strategy of some sort and the digital skills to ensure they keep making progress. Most councils accept this is not only the responsibility of IT professionals but instead affects employees across all departments, requiring a different approach to work.

Jos Creese, principal analyst for the Eduserv Briefing Programme and author of the report, claims the data shows that,

Although councils are taking significant steps to improve digital skills across their organisations, those responsible for delivering services on the front line are getting left behind on the digital journey in terms of understanding and adoption.

Digital is about people more than technology, so it is vital that councils put their HR teams at the heart of planning, working with IT and digital teams to ensure the right skills and knowledge are in place to ensure digital change projects succeed.

Improvement, yes - but non-frontline

There is some comfort in the Eduserv-PPMA study. For example, 61% of PPMA members surveyed said that digital skills had improved in the last year in their teams.

In case you think that’s a contradiction, the improvement is at more senior levels. HR leaders told Creese and his team that digital knowledge had improved among the corporate management team (78%), finance (68%), HR (67%) and IT teams (81%) across the councils they work in. But that improvement, welcome as it was, is said to be only significant in a “minority” of organisations.

There is also a sense that organisations are taking the skills gap seriously, too. Thus half (51%) of councils say they are working to bridge their internal digital skills gaps by using the support of external specialists, while 34% have created a dedicated plan to improve digital literacy. Meanwhile, a third (29%) are ensuring recruitment and performance reviews explicitly reference digital skills.

The report also includes positive case studies, such as the experience of Worcestershire County Council, on fostering a successful internal digital culture. Nonetheless, 66% said they needed to go further in developing a plan to improve digital skills in their organisations - and they acknowledge a need “to take further steps” to address the digital skills deficit among those responsible for delivering services to service users.

Speaking to diginomica/government on the findings of the report, Sue Evans, President of the PPMA, commented:

The fact that there is a digital skills deficit among frontline workers is worrying because these are the very people we need to act as champions of channel shift and ambassadors of digital council services internally, day-to-day in their interaction with citizens and as individuals in the community.

With workforces shrinking, there is a greater pressure on those who remain to be comfortable with change – particularly digital change – and new ways of working. The message to HR leaders is not just to focus on increasing the pace at which they are up-skilling the workforce but to create a culture which embraces digital change and is digitally self-sufficient.

This may sound like a big task, but it isn’t. Most people are digitally self-sufficient in their lives outside work – from shopping to banking- all we are asking people to do is bring that same open-mindedness and willingness to learn to the workplace.”

My take

It’s significant that the subtitle of this report on skills and digital change is ‘HR and IT working together for positive change in local government’.

That’s because it’s going to be in the context of human resources, capability enforcement and career development over the long term that digital competence is most likely to find its roots and grow properly.

As Andy Barton, Aylesbury Vale District Council’s Assistant Director, Business Strategy & Governance, well puts it in the report:

The only way we are going to make real progress against the background of austerity is to get automation working well and predictably to serve demand. [Technology] is also lined to rising customer expectation and the demand for 24/7/365 service.

It’s of course disappointing that there is such a wide imbalance in terms of digital competence in the local authority workforce - but the commitment to doing something about it also needs to be commended, too.


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