Government must address its digital skills gaps


Monchito Ibrahim

The pandemic presents a great opportunity for digital transformation. And we have seen a lot of organizations take advantage of it. For most businesses, it was the only option they saw to keep them afloat. For some, it was a matter of getting ahead of the competition. The lockdowns and the resulting business lull offered a way to finally get those long-postponed digitalization plans started. How did governments fare? What kept them from moving forward with their digitalization journey?

EY,  (Ernst & Young Global Partnership, one of the world’s leading accounting firms), recently released a global report “How can government workers and technology align to serve future citizens?” It says that just seven percent of government leaders feel their organization has met its digital transformation goals and is in danger of losing the momentum built during the pandemic. The report also highlights the lack of capabilities, the struggle to retain talents, and outmoded ways of working as barriers to delivering better public services. Many of us see this reality happening in Philippine government offices as well. But these are only two of many reasons why they are struggling with digitalization.

It is not surprising to see in some offices that IT talents are basically seen only as the technical people needed to remedy problems like desktops not working, connecting to the Wi-Fi network, or why a printer is not functioning properly. They probably have been on the job for years and have not been upskilled to provide more strategic IT roles. If that is where digital talents are mostly utilized, then we can expect that their offices are not able to make the most of digitalization benefits like making services accessible digitally to its customers, getting insights from its data, and improving process efficiency.

The pandemic turned our world upside down. A digital lifestyle and working from home became the norm and most services can now be accessed online. Everyone today expects the government to keep up. The EY report shows that every citizen now expects their government to provide the same levels of quality, speed, and convenience at par with those of the private sector.

Many respondents in the report find themselves facing a wall of issues including the lack of appreciation by their leaders to digitally transform, lack of digital skills including the lack of training to access them, and not having a culture that sees digitalization as needed to more effectively deliver the kind of service level expected of them.

I have managed several public sector digital transformation initiatives here and abroad in my previous life. The lessons I have learned from those projects bring to the fore the importance of in-house digital skills, competencies, and the enabling environment to successfully achieve the goals of those initiatives. Of course, other factors come into play like not having the right budgetary and leadership support to get the project to a successful end. What really hurts the most is when these agencies do not even have the capacity to define what they intend to achieve from a digital transformation project in the first place. The consultants can help, but they will find it difficult to navigate the internal maze of processes if the agency does not have the digital skills to provide strategic directions.

The stakes are high for the public sector because not having the right in-house digital capacity could hamper the capacity to effectively deliver the services in the way preferred by its customers in this new normal, contribute effectively to the growth of the digital economy, and proactively address issues like cybersecurity. It has to be an active player in the current fight for tech talent by overhauling its antiquated recruitment practices and making its salary scales more competitive. If not, the talent market will leave the government with slim pickings from the talent pool resulting in an even wider digital gap with the private sector.

Government, therefore, needs to build a talent pipeline of digital skills ready for the future by training civil servants at scale. Upskill, reskill, and repeat should be the new mantra. Training should extend beyond just tech skills. It has to nurture leadership, strategy, and the soft skills needed to allow culture change, which is critical to digital transformation journeys. The leaders should take a longer view of the agency’s digital capacity and needs to develop strategies to access digital skills. They also have to understand that digital transformation needs them to be open to challenging the status quo, verbalizing a compelling vision for change, and having a digital mindset. More importantly, the agency needs to present its tech talents with a compelling career path that should allow them to grow professionally and fulfill their ambitions.

All of us will suffer if public services are not able to keep up with our changing needs due to inadequate digital skills. It is imperative that government must address the digital skills gap soon.

[email protected]

(The author is the lead convenor of the Alliance for Technology Innovators for the Nation (ATIN), vice president of the Analytics Association of the Philippines, and vice president, UP System Information Technology Foundation.)