14 minute read 11 Oct. 2022
close up of hand holding marble against sky at dusk hero image

How governments can foster a digital-first culture in their workforce

Authors
Sonia Sharp

Partner, People Advisory Services

Sonia is a Partner in EY’s Workforce Advisory Practice, as well as national lead on public service workforce and COVID 19 response and recovery.

Catherine Friday

EY Global Education Leader; EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

Andrew Garner

Oceania EY Government Digital and Technology Lead

Digital transformation leader in advising and delivering connected Government solutions for citizen and provider outcomes. Travels to understand and enjoy our world. Father. Animal lover.

Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Consulting Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.

Shalinder Bakshi

EY Global People Advisory Services Leader, Government & Infrastructure

Balances strategic thinking with great execution. Passionate about workforce transformation to help deliver lasting impact. Father of two. Keen traveler. Fan of heavy metal and Formula 1.

Julie McQueen

EY Global Government & Infrastructure Lead Analyst

Lead Analyst with deep knowledge in public sector and social research, strategy and thought leadership. Passionate about improving public services to create positive social impact.

14 minute read 11 Oct. 2022

A new breed of leaders that prioritise a rewarding employee experience can inspire change across the Oceania public sector.

In brief
  • An effective digitalised government begins with an empowered and motivated workforce.
  • Digital leaders need to challenge entrenched behaviors and mindsets, and involve workers in the design and creation of an innovative, “fail-fast” culture.
  • To create a compelling employee experience, governments should provide workers with exciting careers that provide purpose and continuous learning.

Digital government has the potential to bring huge benefits to citizens, enabling more timely, personalised and cost-effective public services. As one of the biggest employers in Australia and New Zealand, and with a vital role to play in enabling a well-functioning society, government has an opportunity to accelerate transformation of the workforce to deliver long-term value for citizens.

EY teams have undertaken a study, with the findings summarised in a report and three supporting articles, setting out the challenges governments face when delivering digital transformation, and a framework to follow as they seek to create the workforce of the future.

Reimagining the public sector workforce: Four key actions for government

This article explores:

  • The importance of building a digital-first culture that fosters innovation
  • The role of leaders in driving digital transformation
  • How organisations can create an employee experience that keeps workers productive and engaged

The other two articles in the series look at:

According to the EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey,

80%

of government leaders agreed that their culture needs to change to get the full benefit of transformation.

Both the public and private sector have had to adapt to the breathtaking pace of the digital revolution. Government, with its delineated structures and career paths, and long-established ways of working, has faced a bigger challenge than most sectors.

We see an acknowledgement of the need for change among Oceania public sector departments and agencies, and a rise in transformation programs aimed at building more agile, digitally driven organisations. “Across all levels of government, we already see data and digital tools transforming operations, radically improving efficiencies and, most important, delivering better outcomes for citizens”, says Andrew Garner, EY Oceania Government Digital and Technology Lead.

But the continued success of these programs depends upon leaders who can create a compelling case for change, and a motivated, empowered workforce ready to embrace it. Employee experience should be high on leaders’ agendas, to make the public sector a rewarding place to work. It is also a critical factor that impacts the citizen experience. A recent survey by IDC found that 85% of technology decision-makers believe an improved employee experience produces a better customer experience. 

Future-fit governments will also work hard to foster a culture where agility, experimentation and continuous learning thrive. Building resilience will also be critical, and employee experience is at the heart of this.

Government leaders taking part in EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey say creating the right organisational culture is a top three factor in a successful digital transformation. Yet 80% say their culture needs to change to get the full benefit of their transformation, demonstrating the size of the task ahead.

cropped hands of person holding colored marbles
(Chapter breaker)
1

Chapter 1

A new generation of digital leaders in government

Leaders play a vital role in building an innovative, data-driven workplace culture.

Cultivating the new digital leader

A cross-industry EY study, conducted with the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, found that leaders identify leadership as the number one driver of successful transformation, but only 10th when it underperforms. Workers rank leadership as number one driver of successful transformation, regardless.

The public sector needs a new breed of digitally aware leaders, backed by senior executive sponsors who are actively committed to transformation.

A dedicated executive should be appointed to lead the transformation program, working closely with the talent leader to align the digital and workforce strategy. They will use future-back planning to identify bold new opportunities and craft a vision that enthuses and inspires all employees at all levels. In the EY-Saïd Business School study, 49% of respondents in high-performing transformations say the vision is clear and compelling versus just 27% of those in low-performing transformations.

Being a digital leader requires the courage to challenge entrenched behaviours and mindsets, and the influence to build consensus. This calls for soft skills, such as emotional intelligence and a willingness to listen, as well as technical skills. The Singapore government, for instance, has drawn up a new Core Competency Framework, reflecting the more diverse capabilities that leaders need at different levels.

Leaders need the humility to acknowledge that they may not have all the answers, and a willingness to look for solutions both inside and outside the organisation. Forty-seven percent of the survey respondents from high-performing transformations say their leaders welcome ideas from more junior personnel, versus 29% from low-performing transformations.

We've got to be much more agile … much more able to draw in from elsewhere and to listen to those voices from elsewhere … It's quite a powerful change that is coming.
CEO, Australian Digital Health Agency

For digital leaders, the ability to drive change is as important as technical expertise. They need to keep a constant eye on citizens’ needs and the problems that need solving, while motivating staff to embrace creativity and continuous learning. The digital leader should also work with the talent leader to highlight how technology is successfully addressing society’s big challenges, which can inspire existing and future employees. Says Catherine Friday, EY Oceania Regional Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences; EY Global Education Leader, “A human-centred digital government with a firm focus on equity can tackle our most complex challenges — including around climate change, and international relationships — that will ensure our long-term security and prosperity. But the focus needs to be on technology serving people — citizens and employees — not the other way round.”

The recent EY paper outlines 5 Leadership Mindsets (via ey.com UK), and recommends that leaders continually challenge themselves to ensure their beliefs, attitudes and values move with the times.

To find out more about the new breed of leader, read the full version of the paper here.

  • Case study: Creating an agile, united Australian Defence Force

    The Australian Defence Force wanted to build a more change-ready, agile organisation, using digital transformation to break down silos and empower its 80,000 people.

    The EY organisation helped develop a “deliberately different” and deeply personal change management program that resonated across the Defence’s 14 organisations. Humans were placed firmly at the centre of every decision, with robust data and analytics providing near-real-time insights into change effectiveness and helping secure stakeholder buy-in.

    Now united under a powerful “One Defence” philosophy, the Australian Defence Force is continuing to transform and expand its capabilities, while enhancing its competitiveness in a tight talent market.

    Read more about creating an agile, united Australian Defence Force here.

Managing the change

Technical specialists may implement digital transformation, but it can’t happen without the wholehearted acceptance of the workforce, who need to embrace new digital tools and learn how to use data effectively. An effective digital transformation plan will consider all aspects of how the proposed changes will affect the workforce and what engagement is needed to build buy-in. Most public sector organisations already put citizens at the centre when designing service delivery, but Andrew Garner suggests a subtle but powerful shift. “Moving to a ‘humans at the centre’ approach acknowledges the importance of considering the needs of staff and providers, as well as citizens, when designing transformation,” he says.

Unfortunately, many employees question their ability to work with technology and fear it may replace their jobs. However, the evidence is to the contrary: fewer than one in 10 leaders taking part in EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey reduced workforce numbers during digital transformation.

Five, 10 years ago, everyone was saying, ‘We're going to see a smaller knowledge-based workforce.’ I'm not so sure now. We're going to need people in different ways.
CEO, Australian Digital Health Agency

It’s the leader’s responsibility to paint a positive picture of change, communicating how it can enhance everybody’s jobs and deliver better services to citizens.

If you are struggling with people’s resistance … tell the story in a way that really resonates with them and makes them feel proud to be a part of something.
Executive Director, Procurement, Health Benefits Digital Office, Canada

Cultural change also proceeds more smoothly when people take an active role, hence the importance of co-design and using human-centred design approaches to build understanding of human needs, behaviours and motivations into the transformation. According to the previous EY 2020 Tech Horizon Survey, 64% of transformations that “exceed expectations extensively” engaged employees in designing the new employee experience; for initiatives that fell short, just 32% of people were involved actively. Leonie Costello, People advisory services – digital and design Partner at EY Oceania, emphasises the importance of authentic and meaningful collaboration between leaders and teams, saying that, “transformation is both a rational and an emotional journey for people. It is important to lead with empathy and seek to understand the perspectives of others by giving them a voice and a safe space to be heard. Using design thinking and creative techniques can help to create ways of working that embed a human-centred approach into the transformation journey and ultimately into the culture of the organisation.

Another successful change tactic is to create “digital champions” to help people understand and embrace new technology. Training can also accelerate buy-in, possibly augmented by incentives linking digital adoption to performance evaluations and even promotion. In the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (via ey.com UK), digital champions have helped fellow workers co-design an analytics platform and shape the associated training.

Employee feedback helps to continuously improve the performance of technology. This doesn’t just raise motivation, it also encourages risk-taking, assuring workers that failure is a natural part of the creative process rather than something to be feared.

  • Case study: Overcoming resistence to change at Transport for NSW

    Transport for NSW is delivering Australia’s largest-ever transport infrastructure program, integrating key agencies under one shared services organisation. However, rates of adoption have varied, with many employees accustomed to traditional ways of working and having to adapt to a new leadership team.

    The organisation’s change management program included ongoing coaching on how to “navigate and lead through change,” team-building exercises to build a common, high-performing culture and, critically, “reflection” sessions to air and address concerns. Along with highly transparent communications with service centre customers, this greatly helped employees transition into new roles and responsibilities. The reform has been widely recognised for its change management excellence and has significantly improved both customer satisfaction and employee engagement.

Abandoning caution and embracing a growth mindset

Creative new approaches to working practices and service delivery can only come through experimentation. However, public sector workers often struggle with change, fearful that failure will reflect badly upon them, with 58% of government leaders admitting they have not managed to instil a “fail-fast” mentality among staff.

Fail-fast mentality

58%

of government leaders agree “our organisation has tried introducing a fail-fast mentality, but our people are scared to embrace it.”

One positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was the accelerated uptake of digital services. This was partly because of the Australian and New Zealand governments’ proactive response, with public sector agencies innovating at speed to deliver services when people needed them most. When citizens saw the tangible benefits of digital services, their willingness to share data with the government grew. EY Research on Connected Citizens conducted last year believe technology will change government services for the better. Says Catherine Friday, “Digitisation is here to stay, but governments will need to demonstrate that they can be trusted to deliver safe, secure and improved digital services that will benefit all citizens.” 

Government leaders have an opportunity to maintain the digitisation momentum, championing a culture that encourages people to consider how technology can support better services. For example, EY teams have recently helped a large Australian provider of support services for people living with disability to explore how emerging technology might change the kind of supports clients may need in the future. These insights have supported the organisation to identify how to enhance their technological awareness and maturity as well as make some fundamental shifts to their operating model.

One of the main goals I have in my team is to embrace every innovative mind and every project that makes us better. I can’t pay them more, so I have to … make them shine in other ways.
CIO, Swedish local government

Key questions to conside

  • Has leadership developed a clear and compelling vision that the whole workforce buys in to?
  • How could we combine humans and technology to work in smarter ways?
  • How can we educate and reassure our employees about the adoption of new technologies?
  • How do we nurture a fail-fast mindset?
boys playing marbles on the ground
(Chapter breaker)
2

Chapter 2

Rethinking the employee experience

Attract and retain talent by offering purposeful, varied and exciting career opportunities.

A stage for fulfilling work

All organisations acknowledge the war for talent — especially for in-demand digital capabilities. Leaders responding to EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey say that retaining existing talent is one of the top three barriers to acquiring essential digital and tech-related skills. Overcoming these barriers is arguably the top priority for government leaders.

Talent retention

Top 3

Government leaders say the struggle to retain existing talent is among the top three barriers to obtaining the digital and tech-related skills their organisation needs.

Government leaders say the struggle to retain existing talent is among the top-three barriers to obtaining the digital and tech-related skills their organization needs.

A crucial way to tackle this challenge — and to attract new talent — is to provide an outstanding employee experience (EX). An integrated talent management strategy takes a holistic view of the entire employee lifecycle and seeks to continually improve the experience over time.

Keeping track of employee sentiment via surveys can gauge job satisfaction, wellbeing and attitudes to learning, providing insights to design better experiences. Frequent pulse surveys offer more up-to-date feedback and enable ongoing two-way communications.

Public services such as health care, education, public safety and infrastructure play a vital societal role, and leaders can build on this to cultivate a sense of shared purpose that binds together a diverse workforce of permanent and gig workers of different generations and across different locations. Measuring and communicating the impact can reinforce the meaning of work and build pride.

We try to make sure we've got high-quality data and visualisation systems to show our staff how effective they are being and what differences they are making.
Chief Digital Officer, UK

Managing the new hybrid workplace

As hybrid working becomes mainstream, public sector organisations need to embed flexible working policies. As work-life boundaries blur, communications and management styles should adapt to support workers, avoid burnout, and balance wellbeing and productivity.

According to the EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey almost one-third of public sector leaders cite employee wellbeing and burnout as one of the top workforce risks.

Top workforce risks

54%

of public sector leaders cite they are constantly monitoring employees wellbeing.

Developed as part of EY research on human-centred transformation, the EY predictive model indicates that providing more emotional support improves the average likelihood of transformation success by 17%.

Hybrid working also presents an opportunity to repurpose office space — including desk sharing and collaboration hubs. The Canadian government has piloted the GCcoworking initiative, which provides shared workplaces for use by multiple departments, organised into different areas, including a “quiet zone” for focused individual working and an “interactive zone” for collaboration.

Of course, ultimately, hybrid working must fit within service delivery mandates, which means some roles will remain on-site. Equity between those working remotely and those obliged to be present in the workplace needs to be carefully maintained, to avoid a “two-tier” workforce where those in the office have access to more opportunities due to closer proximity to leadership. The EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey reveals that 45% of government employees believe new ways of working will see some segments of the workforce losing out.

Two-tier workforce

45%

of government employees believe new ways of working will cause some segments of the workforce to lose out.

  • Case study: Creating healthy workplaces in Sweden

    EY collaborated with Partsrådet to establish a more sustainable work-life balance for 270,000 public sector workers in Sweden — 5% of the nation’s total workforce. Partsrådet, a nonprofit organisation funded by state agencies in cooperation with unions, was concerned about the impact of an anticipated trend of employees retiring at a later stage. EY teams helped the organisation design a five-year program, by defining what “sustainable work-life” means, mapping the needs of the workforce and delivering tailored services to meet those needs. The program underpins the creation of healthy and engaged workplaces — with a positive impact not just on government employees but also on Swedish society as a whole.

Continuous learning and structured career paths

Continuous learning can contribute greatly to the EX, boosting employee satisfaction, productivity, retention and recruitment. Employees can receive funding and time off to attend courses, and access digital and on-the-job learning resources, while rewards and recognition programs can further incentivise learning uptake. EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey shows that around one-quarter of government leaders surveyed consider incentives as one of the most important ways to build digital skills.

Investment in workforce learning, growth and versatility is essential in today’s public sector.
Sonia Sharp
Partner, People Advisory Services, EY Oceania

Meanwhile, structured professional and career frameworks, underpinned by robust performance evaluation systems and merit-based promotions, will help workers feel they can fulfil their career ambitions. Investment in workforce learning and growth is essential in today’s public sector. Skill versatility is more important than ever, both for the performance of the public sector and the satisfaction of its team.

Key questions to consider
  • How can we create a digital-driven, hybrid workplace?
  • Do we offer the right mix of flexible working options?
  • How do we ensure remote workers feel included and supported?
  • How should we measure productivity and performance in a remote work environment?
  • Do we offer a structured career path that enables people to achieve their ambitions?
  • How can we monitor and respond to employee sentiment and maintain wellbeing?

Conclusion

The new digital leader is more an agent of change than a technical expert, painting a vivid picture of how technology can change citizens’ lives for the better — and revolutionise the workplace experience. With a mission to continually challenge the status quo, the leader will engage workers in the co-design of a new, hybrid working environment, where experimentation is commonplace, and failure an accepted part of innovation. Employees will enjoy varied careers, with continuous opportunities to learn and develop, and the satisfaction that comes from serving the public good.

Read the full report

EY teams conducted in-depth interviews with leaders about their digital transformation initiatives.

Request the report

Summary

To inspire a tech-savvy, innovative workforce, public sector leaders should communicate a compelling vision of digital transformation that results in a better citizen experience. Getting there won’t be easy, and will require empathetic and inspiring leadership and change management. Future careers in government will be characterized by learning and experimentation, and a sense of pride and purpose in improving people’s lives.

About this article

Authors
Sonia Sharp

Partner, People Advisory Services

Sonia is a Partner in EY’s Workforce Advisory Practice, as well as national lead on public service workforce and COVID 19 response and recovery.

Catherine Friday

EY Global Education Leader; EY Oceania Managing Partner, Government and Health Sciences

Improving how governments work and deliver services. Mustang owner. Keen horse rider. Average but enthusiastic skier.

Andrew Garner

Oceania EY Government Digital and Technology Lead

Digital transformation leader in advising and delivering connected Government solutions for citizen and provider outcomes. Travels to understand and enjoy our world. Father. Animal lover.

Arnauld Bertrand

EY Global Government & Public Sector Consulting Leader

Working with governments to build stronger administrations for impactful public policies. Passionate about leading teams to guide public performance, innovation and service.

Shalinder Bakshi

EY Global People Advisory Services Leader, Government & Infrastructure

Balances strategic thinking with great execution. Passionate about workforce transformation to help deliver lasting impact. Father of two. Keen traveler. Fan of heavy metal and Formula 1.

Julie McQueen

EY Global Government & Infrastructure Lead Analyst

Lead Analyst with deep knowledge in public sector and social research, strategy and thought leadership. Passionate about improving public services to create positive social impact.