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Skills

Teaching civil servants to work like start-ups

Launched last week, the Public School of Technology aims to boost UK public sector workers' digital skills by exposing them to the working methods of the tech start-up scene.

Despite over two decades of leading digital initiatives, the UK’s public sector is still a laggard in its use of digital technology. A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that digital transformation projects in UK government have “a consistent pattern of underperformance” due to inadequate leadership and senior decision-makers’ inability to understand digital change implementation.

Last week, govtech accelerator and investment fund PUBLIC launched a new Public School of Technology, which aims to equip civil servants with the skills required to make digital transformation a success. Founder Daniel Korski told Tech Monitor why civil servants can learn a lot from the working methods of start-ups.

Public sector digital skills

Participants of the Public School of Technology’s training schemes are seconded to start-ups. (Photo by recep-bg/Getty Images)

The UK public sector digital skills gap

Developing digital skills in the public sector has been on the UK government’s agenda since its 2017 Government Transformation Strategy. “Digital, data and technology is a critical function within government but is less well-established than other Civil Service functions, such as human resources or finance,” the strategy noted.

Since 2014, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has offered training to help public service employees develop their digital skills and learn methodologies such as agile and user-centred design. By 2019, GDS Academy had trained 7,500 people, according to evidence submitted to a parliamentary enquiry. “By any assessment, that is a creditable performance in a very short space of time,” said Professor Chris Johnson of the UK Computing Research Committee.

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But there is still room for improvement. A survey by recruiter Hays found that just 56% of public-sector employers have access to the digital skills they need, compared to 64% in the private sector. And a report by the Institute for Government found that a lack of science and digital skills was the chief area of concern to have emerged for the UK civil service during the pandemic.

Learning from start-ups

Korski, co-founder and CEO of PUBLIC, says that the GDS Academy is a good example of in-house digital skills training offering great courses and content. However, in his view, it has been unable to scale, to address people outside of IT departments, or to bring in a private-sector perspective.

“Great work has been initiated by Michael Gove when he was in the Cabinet Office under [Cabinet Executive officer] Pamela Dow, so there’s clearly a real push to upskill officials across a number of things like project management, financing,” Korski says. “But I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on the digital side. And that’s where we want to make a difference.”

To accompany the launch of the PST, PUBLIC published a manifesto listing ten skills that are needed to foster “a digitally enabled public sector”. These include “be data-literate”, “practice data-informed policy making”, and “be agile”.

There is a particular dynamic in start-ups that’s enormously useful to learn from.
Daniel Korski, PUBLIC

For many of these skills, Korski argues, public servants can benefit from learning from start-ups. “I think that there is a particular dynamic in start-ups that’s enormously useful to learn from,” says Korski. “You can’t replicate it entirely – it’s a very different exercise to try to build a profit-maximizing, venture-backed business to delivering a public service. But that isn’t to say that there aren’t some great methodologies to learn about agile working, about iterative approaches, about the sort of test-and-learn approach that is absolutely critical to start-up success.”

Participants in one of the PST’s training schemes – the Innovators’ Fellowship – will be seconded to digital start-ups to learn these agile methodologies first-hand. In a pilot for the scheme, employees from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy were embedded with start-ups for ten weeks. “Everybody has come back finding it incredibly helpful and useful,” Korski says. “It has built networks in places and amongst… people in professions that officials tend not to have.”

A typical 12-week group course at the PST costs around £1,200 per pupil, and less for individuals. These prices are competitive compared to other courses in the market, Korski says.

London Borough of Camden’s chief digital officer, Tariq Khan, agrees that the public sector can benefit from learning from start-ups and the wider private sector. “Whilst it feels like good progress is being made with digital, anything that helps improve the public sector’s understanding can only be a good thing,” Khan told Tech Monitor. “There’s a huge appetite to learn more, particularly as we come out of a pandemic that’s brought about a greater appreciation of what digital can do.

“Having worked with a lot of start-ups and scale-ups in the private sector, I see a real opportunity to learn from their community and partner with them more – so it’s really encouraging to see an approach that adopts learnings from that sector.”

Having worked with a lot of start-ups and scaleups in the private sector, I see a real opportunity to learn from their community and partner with them more.
Tariq Khan, London Borough of Camden

Public sector digital skills: an opportunity for leadership

Boosting the digital skills of civil servants is about more than increasing the adoption digital tools. Instead, it has the potential to change how governments adapt public services in response to the public’s needs.

“Digital government has emerged as a powerful force for change in some contexts, but has not, as yet, transformed the operation, accountability, and efficacy of many other public institutions,” writes Dr Tanya Filer on the website for ‘Teaching Public Service in the Digital Age’, an international project to boost public sector digital skills. “It is increasingly important for emerging policymakers to navigate the complex set of opportunities and challenges that digital and emerging technologies present for government, and to do so with contextual awareness of local political and administrative cultures.”

For Korski, skills training offers an opportunity for the UK to recapture its reputation as a world leader in government digital transformation. “I think we have a really big national opportunity to become the place where the world’s public officials come to learn about how to use technology for great public services, and we have to start at home,” he says. “We have to start with the civil service but there’s a much bigger opportunity of making the UK the sort of centre for global learning about technology and government.”

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.