As the world grows more digital – and increasingly mobile – workforce development inside of government and digital literacy across all of society are interrelated challenges facing all countries. Government’s threefold task is to: first, nurture new skill sets for its own employee base (comprising multiple and distinct demographic segments); second, innovate and incentivize the usage of online channels for service delivery; and third, facilitate investments and policies to specifically target those in society potentially marginalized by digitization.
Governments and industry are clearly struggling with the first task. A new study by Deloitte and the Human Resources Professional Association (HRPA) demonstrates that organizations in all sectors are failing to keep up with technological innovation, notably in training and development. A likeminded examination of human resource systems in 2016 by HRPA found that despite clear demographic cleavages in patterns of technology usage, only fourteen per cent of Canadian organizations reported specific and formalised efforts to address and harness such inter-generational differences.
The second task is hardly nove, but it is rapidly evolving in a mobile-centric service context. For many organizations, mobile is viewed as an extension of electronic channels created in the era of personal computers, but according to Michelle Moore, head of digital delivery efforts for Bank of America (in an interview with Investor’s Business Daily), such a view is erroneous: mobile instead requires new mindsets and new skill sets with once again demographic segmentation as an important variable. Facebook’s rapid transformation from a desktop platform to a mobile-driven company is similarly a case in point.
Of course, banks and social media companies are hardly government – though such comparisons matter, and are often even encouraged by political leaders themselves. In the public sector, however, workforce development has not kept up. A recent examination of the Government Digital Service effort in the UK by the Institute on Government (improving the management of digital government) found the absence of digital skills across government to be a major inhibitor of greater progress in service transformation.
The third task – digital literacy and social inclusion, is more outward and by necessity collaborative, enjoining the likes of banks, technology companies and governments. Building on its prior (and admittedly insufficient) efforts dubbed “assisted digital” (prioritizing online channels while targeting groups unable or unwilling to utilize such channels – often due to lack of awareness), the British Government has recently launched a new Digital Skills Partnership that aims to break new ground in the expansion of digital literacy.
Led by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the collaborative plan calls for the creation of four million digital training opportunities, the bulk of which shall be delivered by private sector partners (notably Lloyd’s and Barclay’s banks, BT and Google). Lloyd’s Bank alone has pledged to train 2.5 million individuals, small businesses and charities by 2020. The mixing of private interest and public interest pursuits is explicitly embraced, as explained by an article in Wired Magazine describing the initiative:
“The point of the Digital Strategy is not just to target younger generations with coding courses (though that is of course, part of it, with Barclay’s pledging to teach 45,000 children basic coding) but to ensure members of the public across all age groups can make use of online services that should make their lives easier, or get them better employment. And of course, the government hopes this will mean more people will ultimately use its own digital services.”
Here in this country, the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) put forth in 2016 a “Digital Talent Strategy” for nurturing and upgrading Canada’s human capital. As with the British effort, the ICTC report underscores digital literacy as a central theme: “Strong digital literacy for all citizens will enable people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to effectively and confidently navigate the increasingly digital world.”
Yet ICTC is an autonomous body recommending action but not compelling government to act. The Canadian Government, moreover, is now launching its own revamped digital services unit a mere five years after their British counterpart. In moving forward – ideally with some urgency – the new skills imperative at the heart of digital government is one that must also enjoin all sectors in a comprehensive and collective focus on workforce development, service innovation, and digital literacy.
Jeffrey Roy is a professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).