Delivering the promise of the digital state
The challenge: building digital talent that enables citizen centricity.
The rapid shift to digitalisation during the pandemic gave a tantalising glimpse of just what is possible when governments empower their workforces to experiment with bold new approaches. But there’s a danger this momentum will stall if the public sector simply lapses back into its old ways of working, which are too often burdened by excess bureaucracy, hierarchical career structures, rigid job descriptions and limited training.
New research from EY teams suggests this regression is a very real threat, with governments continuing to face significant challenges in harnessing the potential of technology. Just 7% of the 150 government leaders taking part in the 2022 EY Tech Horizon Survey say their organisation has achieved its digital transformation objectives.
of government leaders surveyed said their organisation has achieved its digital transformation objectives.
As one of the biggest employers in most countries, and with a vital role to play in enabling a well-functioning society, governments must pick up the pace in transforming their workforces to deliver long-term value for citizens. But it is important to remember that "It's one thing to roll out great technology, but great technology that's not used well is just an expense," says Geoff Connell, Director of IMT & Chief Digital Officer, Norfolk County Council, UK. Advanced technologies such as analytics and AI can only fully deliver if they are deployed by skilled, smart, adaptable workers who are committed to continuous improvement.
It's one thing to roll out great technology, but great technology that's not used well is just an expense.
Clearly, different countries are at varying levels of maturity. Some are well advanced in their workforce transformation, while others are at a much earlier stage. EY research indicates that many government workforces find themselves constrained by one or more of the following issues:
- They lack digitally aware leaders who can reimagine the citizen experience and create an inspiring vision for change.
- Workforce initiatives are reactive, uncoordinated and disconnected from the digital transformation agenda. Planning rarely embraces the kind of “future-back” vision that would allow the organisation to anticipate and respond to evolving needs by mapping out the risks and opportunities of possible futures, then working backward to understand the strategic and tactical implications and priorities for today.
- Digital and data skills are often the province of IT specialists, when they should be essential capabilities for every employee.
- Skills development and recruitment processes are no longer fit for purpose.
- Organisational culture is reactive and risk-averse, rather than dynamic and innovative, hampering efforts to attract the best digital talent.
- The employee experience is not designed to create fulfilling, rewarding jobs or emphasise the deep sense of purpose that government roles can offer.
The stakes are high. But as Eddie Copeland, Director, London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI), UK, says, "We often talk about the risks of adopting new approaches but we fail to talk about the risks of not changing." If governments do not urgently set about reconfiguring the workforce, they will find themselves without the skilled employees they need. Opportunities to improve services through harnessing data and technology will be lost. The chance to individualise and target services will be squandered — and with it, the ability to better allocate taxpayer resources and deliver maximum benefits as and where needed. Most concerningly, society’s most vulnerable people will suffer if public services deteriorate due to inadequate capacity or skill levels.
We often talk about the risks of adopting new approaches but we fail to talk about the risks of not changing.
Global trends are disrupting government workforces
Long-established norms are being upended.
Several global trends are converging to disrupt governments, presenting significant challenges, as well as opportunities, for the digital transformation of the public sector.
Public sector problems are difficult to solve. Many of these things are long-term and affect millions of people.
Changing citizen and employee expectations
“Public sector problems are difficult to solve,” said Cheow Hoe Chan Chief Digital & Technology Officer, Govtech, Singapore. “Many of these things are long-term and affect millions of people,” he adds. Public service users now expect (and deserve) levels of quality, speed and convenience on a par with the private sector, with immediate, seamless, equal and omnichannel access to services. Our Connected Citizens study shows that citizens expect technology to improve the way they conduct many aspects of their lives — and they expect government to keep up.
Governments are responding by trying to become more citizen centric. According to 2022 EY Tech Horizon Survey, 43% of government respondents rank a focus on the customer and citizen experience as one of the top three factors driving successful transformation. This calls for better use of technology and data to understand people’s needs and circumstances, as well as new skills such as user experience research and design.
Employees also want a digital workplace that keeps pace with their personal experience. EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey shows 63% of government employees surveyed believe extensive or moderate changes are needed to enhance their workplace digital tools and technologies.
of government employees surveyed believe extensive or moderate changes are needed to enhance their workplace digital tools and technologies.
Disruptive technologies can transform services for citizens and communities and free up public workers to focus on what is important. These technologies also provide a unique opportunity to free up resources to invest in priority policies. With limited budgets, governments face tough decisions on where to invest. EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey identified four priority technologies — cloud, data and analytics, the internet of things (IoT), and AI and machine learning (ML) — with the potential to radically change ways of working.
Evolving skill needs
The World Economic Forum estimates that, to adapt to the new tech-enabled workplace, public sector workers will have to change around 40% of their core skills in the next five years. It’s not only technical skills that are in high demand; tomorrow’s civil servant must also possess attributes such as curiosity, empathy and problem-solving.
Public sector workers will have to change around 40% of their core skills in the next five years — World Economic Forum (pdf).
Shifting worker demographics and attitudes
With five generations coexisting in the workforce, government leaders need to manage diverse career aspirations and expectations. Millennials and Gen Zs are more likely to favor shorter job tenures and seek greater purpose and fulfillment, while people of all ages want a healthier work-life balance. Attracting younger workers is especially important given that many public workers are approaching retirement.
The great post-pandemic resignation has seen employees — especially those with in-demand skills such as analytics and cybersecurity — move at record levels, as people of all ages re-evaluate what they want from work and embrace more flexible careers. In 2022 EY Work Reimagined Survey, 29% of government employees say they are likely to leave their job in the next 12 months, rising to 38% of Gen Z employees.
The new hybrid workplace
Almost instantaneously, the pandemic made home-based working commonplace — even in public services traditionally resistant to change. Hybrid working has now become an expectation rather than a nice-to-have for most government and public sector workers. EY 2022 Work Reimagined Survey found 77% of respondents want to work remotely at least two days per week.
Where once government employers expressed skepticism about remote working, the majority are now embracing it for the longer term: 61% describe their return-to-office philosophy as hybrid while, for hard to fill vacancies, 52% will hire employees to work from anywhere. Around three-quarters (74%) have expanded, or are planning to expand, their use of collaboration tools that enhance home working.
Reimagining the public sector workforce
Creating dynamic, tech-savvy workforces focused on the citizen experience.
To adapt to a dynamic environment and deliver value to citizens, governments and public sector organisations need to reimagine their entire workforce approach, to allow for the necessary digitalisation of their processes and culture.
While the four vital actions for transformation outlined in the framework work together holistically – all at once and one at a time - we will explore it further in two parts.
1. Accessing the right capabilities at the right time
Everyone wants to see the end result and the technology. However, no one wants to do the planning because it's not fun, it's tedious, and it's a lot of work.
With the vision for a better citizen experience firmly in mind, governments need a longer-term view of the capacity and capability needed to deliver. However, as Arnaldo Cruz, Director of Policy and Research, Civil Service Reform, Puerto Rico, points out, “Everyone wants to see the end result and the technology. However, no one wants to do the planning because it's not fun, it's tedious, and it's a lot of work.” Skills requirements are constantly changing as roles become more fluid. Boundaries between roles are becoming blurred as humans are increasingly working alongside machines. By employing dynamic workforce planning, public sector organisations can assess the multiyear impact of emerging technologies, plot “technology disruption curves,” and continually recast existing roles and define new ones. They must also find agile ways to bring in the right skills and capacity when needed — which may mean going outside the organisation.
Governments will also need to develop strategies to bridge the skills gap. Existing employees can be upskilled or reskilled via tailored training programs delivered through digital academies, self-directed digital learning programs, informal and on-the-job learning schemes, and by drawing on external partners’ expertise. To source fresh talent, a broader rebrand can help make the public sector more attractive, emphasising purposeful careers in diverse organisations that improve people’s lives. Proactive recruitment strategies can target nontraditional talent pools.
To dive deeper into this area of the framework read: How governments can plan for a future-fit, digital workforce.
2. Culture and employee experience drives technology adoption
You need a very strong employee experience strategy that isn't just lip service. It has to be real and it has to be tangible for employees.
The public sector needs a new breed of empathetic digital leaders who can challenge established practices, are willing to listen to others and embrace failure as a way to learn, and have the influence to drive cultural change. Managing digital transformation requires education and reassurance for employees, wide input into solution design and support from networks of “digital champions.” Employees should be encouraged to embrace a digital mindset, using data insights, and be innovative and adaptive to change. Our research shows that a large majority of leaders (79%) feel their culture must evolve significantly to reap the full benefits of technology.
of government leaders agree “our culture needs to change for our organisation to get the full benefit of our transformation.”
Finally, public sector organisations need a reimagined, tailored employee experience that treats every worker as a unique individual across the whole employee lifecycle, from recruitment to development, recognition and rewards, and wellbeing. As James Stewart, CTO, Public Digital, UK says, “You need a very strong employee experience strategy that isn't just lip service. It has to be real and it has to be tangible for employees.” Structured career paths will help workers progress and fulfil their career ambitions. Feedback is essential, with frequent “pulse” surveys of workers and citizens, maintaining a strong link between work and the ultimate citizen experience, to help build a stronger sense of pride and purpose. New modern, hybrid workplaces will allow for a balance between wellbeing and productivity. Get it right, and the public sector should be set for an exciting decade of innovation that is attractive to both existing workers and potential recruits.
To dive deeper into this area of the framework read: How governments can foster a digital-first culture in their workforce.
In a digital state, the public sector workforce will be characterised by new skills, fluid organisational structures, flexible teams and working hours, and a mix of employees and contractors. Above all, it will be centered around the citizen and measured on innovation and citizen experience.
While change is hard, standing still is not an option. Governments should prioritise the digital transformation agenda. But this will only yield the desired results if the workforce is equipped, and motivated, to use technology to build a better world for its citizens.
There are lessons to be learned from the pioneers, and in our study we include examples of good practices from around the world. We present a vision for the future public sector workforce and recommend the key actions to help governments provide a 21st century citizen experience.
This article is based on a range of new research from EY teams. We draw from three quantitative surveys: the 2022 EY Work Reimagined Survey, which includes responses from 1,694 government and public sector employees and 44 government employers globally; the 2022 EY Tech Horizon Survey of 150 senior government and public sector leaders; and the EY and University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School Humans@Center survey of 935 senior leaders and direct reports, as well as 1,127 workforce members from 23 countries and 16 industry sectors.
EY teams also conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 18 government leaders across eight countries, including CEOs, chief digital officers and chief human resource officers. We asked each leader about their digital transformation initiatives, related workforce challenges and the actions they are taking to address them. Finally, we draw on insights from EY professionals and client engagements.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered a glimpse of the potential of digital government, but with rising employee and citizen expectations, momentum must not stall, or opportunities to transform public services will be lost. To step up, governments need to intensify their focus on the citizen, building flexible, hybrid working environments staffed by digitally savvy workers. Outmoded ways of working must be swept away, replaced by new cultures that value creativity and experimentation. In the new digital state, employees will shape exciting, fulfilling careers characterised by continual learning and a shared purpose to serve citizens.