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How governments can plan for a future-fit, digital workforce

To deliver a better future citizen experience, governments need a dynamic model to plan for and access the right people and skills.


In brief

  • Governments must take a longer-term view of capacity and capability needs, and develop strategies to fill the gaps, internally or externally.
  • Creative new approaches, tailored to employees, are needed to develop digital and soft skills, and promote a strong sense of purpose to attract new talent.
  • Given the rapid pace of change, planning must be dynamic, with flexible deployment of resources based on changing needs.

Today’s citizens are accustomed to an increasingly fast, simple and gratifying experience from organizations they do business with, and they expect the same from their interactions with the public sector. Technology is a crucial enabler of citizen centricity, with the potential to create more timely, joined-up, personalized and cost-effective public services. But governments won’t be able to provide a 21st century citizen experience and better citizen outcomes with 20th century skills and working practices. An effective digital state begins with a skilled, empowered and motivated workforce.

EY has undertaken a study, with the findings summarized 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.

This article explores the importance of dynamic workforce planning in anticipating future workforce needs and finding agile ways to deploy talent, and how to access the right digital capabilities by upskilling and sourcing new talent.

The other two articles in the series are as follows:

  • The challenges facing the government workforce today and the benefits of digitalization
  • The importance of building a digital-first culture that fosters innovation, the role of leaders in driving digital transformation, and how organizations can create an employee experience that keeps workers productive and engaged

As service delivery is dramatically disrupted by technology, governments must pick up the pace in transforming their workforces to deliver long-term value for citizens. This means constantly assessing the capabilities they need and the way they access these skills — a task that has not always been given the priority it deserves.

Given the pace of change, workforce planning must adapt to ensure that governments can identify future skills gaps and devise strategies to access resources, internally or externally. Old roles will become redundant as new ones constantly emerge: 10 years ago, who had heard of data ethicists, information security analysts or user experience designers?

The new human-machine workplace calls for a blend of technical competence and “soft skills” such as empathy, curiosity and problem-solving across the whole workforce. It’s not just about training, but about cultivating a culture of innovation, purpose, inclusivity and lifelong learning.

As fresh challenges materialize and service demand evolves, planning must also be dynamic, as organizations will have to deploy resources more flexibly to meet changing needs and circumstances.

Putting humans at the center of workforce transformation efforts will help governments deliver the benefits of digitalization. 

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Chapter 1

Workforce planning

Governments should anticipate future workforce needs and find agile ways to deploy talent.

Strategic workforce planning should be conducted at a whole of government level, with a national digital strategy that highlights the workforce’s role in driving transformation, as well as the opportunities and risks of new technology.Thailand’s Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA), for example, set up a dedicated “futures” unit to assess the latest technology advances, anticipate emerging jobs and identify the digital skills that don’t yet exist. 

At the organization level, digital transformation requires an integrated strategy aligning the overall vision and goals with digital and workforce planning.

Designing a workforce plan

Workforce planning involves several stages:

  1. Take a “future-back” approach to define the desired citizen experience and outcomes in five years’ time, the possible paths to achieve this, and the risks and opportunities of each. Then, work backward to understand the strategic and tactical implications and priorities for today.
  2. Define the future digital government organizational structure and transformation strategy to achieve the vision and the roles and skills needed to deliver.
  3. Review current workforce capacity and capability, mining demographic and HR data for insights into employee skills, performance and likely attrition rates. 
  4. Evaluate short-, medium- and long-term workforce needs, considering new roles and capabilities.
  5. Model projected gaps and create new job profiles.
  6. Fill gaps by upskilling and re-skilling, bringing in new long-term and contingent talent, and deploying resources as needed across different departments and agencies.
  7. Continue to assess the multiyear impact of emerging technologies, plot “technology disruption curves,” and continually recast existing roles and create new ones.

Case study: Defining skill requirements for a government agency

The Government Technology Agency of Singapore plays a key role in implementing the smart nation vision. With over 3,000 employees, it aims to digitally transform the public sector and make a difference in citizens’ everyday lives. The agency has identified emerging digital skills to be developed within government institutions (e.g., cyber risk, data science, application development and infrastructure) and built technical competency and assessment frameworks.

Responding to a dynamic environment

Along with having a long-term workforce strategy, governments need to adapt to fast-changing circumstances, such as pandemics. Adaptive workforce planning uses advanced data analytics, augmented by automation, to forecast future needs and allocate resources effectively. Cloud-based workforce analytics tools — such as the EY Organization Talent Hub (OTH) — allow governments to integrate data from multiple internal and external sources to build a clearer picture. The Republic of Korea, for instance, has transformed the way it manages its 300,000 employees through better access to data. Its e-Saram system enables each government agency to digitally handle a variety of HR tasks, as well as carrying out internal talent searches.

In future, governments will deploy resources for different departments on demand — not just to provide additional capacity but to bring in the right skills. As Eddie Copland, Director, London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI), UK, said, "Everyone needs to be fluid, everyone needs to be adaptable, and everyone needs to be able to work in different combinations of multidisciplinary teams." This agility will also help to build organizational networks and improve interdepartmental collaboration. A central pool of workers could be made available for different projects and tasks across agencies. Other internal mobility programs include employee “leasing,” rotations, secondments and talent “trading” from other public sector organizations. The US digital services agency, 18F, fosters innovation across government by mobilizing diverse and agile teams to solve urgent problems, with project-based recruitment strategies and flexible job descriptions. 

Another route is to forge external partnerships with organizations that can help supply skilled staff. This route was adopted by 30% of government leaders in the EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey.

As the use of gig workers increases, some governments are employing freelancers, contractors and secondees from other sectors for shorter-term, project-based roles, using hiring platforms that swiftly connect them with the right talent. This approach also reduces fixed employee costs — offering important flexibility in uncertain times.

In a fluid environment, governments need mechanisms for sourcing, vetting, onboarding and managing a nonpermanent workforce. This means hiring for capabilities rather than roles and building speedier recruitment processes. The Canadian government, for example, has developed a digital platform, GC Talent Cloud, that vets potential public sector employees and facilitates searchability based on public agencies’ project needs.

Case study: Meeting departmental skill needs in Italy

Working with Italy’s Department for Public Employment (DFP — Dipartimento della Funzione Pubblica), EY teams helped develop a portal to connect labor market demand with supply, matching different departments’ needs with professional profiles. These profiles are continually updated from multiple professional social media sources, such as LinkedIn, to create a high-performing pool of candidates. The portal is enhancing the government’s employer brand and attracting young, talented people to the public sector.

Key questions to consider:
  • How could we combine humans and technology to work in smarter ways?
  • What new skills and roles will be needed to maximize the potential of new technology in our organization?
  • How can we become more flexible and responsive to fluctuating needs?
  • How can we balance mobility with the need for institutional and domain expertise?
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Chapter 2

Skills development

Governments must source the capabilities to deliver their digital strategy by developing existing employees at scale and bringing in new talent.

In the EY 2022 Tech Horizon Survey, having the right digital and technology-related skills is a top-three factor in a successful digital transformation, with respondents citing an urgent need for skills in data and analytics, cloud, and cybersecurity and privacy.

The majority (84%) are increasing spend to source technology skills from outside, although more than three-quarters (77%) acknowledge that competition for workers with in-demand technology skills has become even more intense since the COVID-19 pandemic. Given this talent scarcity, it’s little surprise that two-thirds prioritize re-skilling of existing staff over hiring externally. 

Further barriers to building digital capability include inadequate compensation, ineffective training programs, difficulty retaining existing talent, and a general lack of experience in sourcing talent from the digital jobs market.

Top five internal barriers to obtaining the digital and technology-related skills your organization needs for its transformation (% of respondents ranking an option in their top three)

Plugging the skills gap: the two main strategies

1.  Upskill or re-skill employees at scale

Public sector organizations’ past attempts at digital learning have often fallen short, with training programs that are outdated, inaccessible or costly. Building a more effective program, tailored to the distinct needs of different employee groups — organizational and functional leaders, civil servants and frontline workers, and digital specialists — is vital. Governments can consider a range of different options:

  • Digital academies

These provide formal training and development programs in areas such as user-centered design and AI. The UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) Academy, for example, provides both online and in-person courses at permanent and mobile training centers around the country. Canada, Lithuania and Argentina have followed a similar path.

  • Self-directed digital learning

Research shows that 84% of learners now prefer self-directed learning, which widens access to education, enabling people to learn at a time, place and speed that suits them. The EY organization launched the EY Badges program in 2018 to help our employees earn digital credentials by studying for free to develop future-focused skills. It has since joined with Hult International Business School to launch the Tech MBA, a virtual learning model that allows staff to build their own personal curriculum from a range of subject areas, from AI, blockchain and RPA to purpose, personal wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability.

Case study: Bringing e-learning to public officials in India

The Department of Personnel & Training in India has developed a new training policy and learning delivery platform. It seeks to democratize skills development for 18m public officials — replacing an outdated and inconsistent program involving more than 300 disparate training centers. The new approach updates the national training policy, and designs and rolls out a new integrated Government Online Training (iGOT) platform, which so far hosts 115 courses. These courses aid competency-based specialization for government employees and enhance effectiveness and citizen centricity.

  • Informal and on-the-job learning

Initiatives such as job shadowing, fellowships and coaching enable employees to simultaneously learn and work on real-world projects. The civil service in Chile launched its Líderes Digitales (Digital Leaders) program in 2019 to train civil employees aged under 30 as mentors for the over 50s. And in Argentina, the State Property Management Agency enlisted young civil servants to support their older peers in adopting a new electronic records system.

  • Drawing on external expertise

Governments are also seeking to harness the expertise of outside partners, including big tech businesses, tech startups and academia. Since 2018, the Indonesian government has partnered with more than 90 universities and polytechnics, local startups and big tech companies to offer its Digital Talent Scholarship to address the skills shortfall.

2. Source new talent

Civil service pay structures rarely keep pace with the private sector, which makes it especially hard to recruit in-demand technical talent. However, there are alternative ways to increase the allure of working in government and gain access to people who might otherwise not have considered such a career:

  • Rebrand the public sector

To counter the perception of government jobs as bureaucratic and limited in scope, public sector organizations can promote a brand that not only does good but also uses innovative technology to solve complex societal challenges. As Eddie Copeland, Director, London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI), UK, says, "We've got to dispel some of the myths ... and emphasize that by working in local governments, you may earn less, but you can have a real positive social impact."

  • Reimagine hiring

Governments can become more flexible and proactive in their resourcing strategies. Some are forming specialist teams to proactively hire digital talent, while technology is making recruitment more efficient as AI is automating administrative tasks related to hiring. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is setting up a dedicated cybersecurity career track, with special opportunities, benefits and salaries, in a bid to attract top-flight candidates. There is also a shift toward more flexible assessment criteria based upon capabilities rather than just qualifications.

  • Target new talent pools

Governments are casting the net wider in search of skills not typically associated with the public sector, from sources such as innovation and tech centers. They can attract younger candidates, or those with specific skill sets, through fast-track development programs, including internships, fellowships, apprenticeships and IT leadership development. Charities are also teaching tech skills to people who otherwise might not have access to such a career: good examples include CodeYourFuture, which trains refugees and other disadvantaged people to become web developers, and Code4000, which teaches software development and digital skills to prisoners.

Case study: Re-skilling veterans at the Canadian Department of National Defence

The department created the Cyber Workforce Enablement Program (CWEP) to build a skilled IT workforce. CWEP serves to bridge the gap between IT talent shortages and the underemployment common among Canadian veterans. Through a partnership with WithYouWithMe, veterans receive free training and support to start a government career in technology after military service. More than 4,000 people are in the program, creating a whole new talent pool. 

  • Improve diversity and inclusion
    Diversity can bring fresh perspectives, boosting creativity and organizational performance. While most organizations have diversity targets as part of their transformation initiatives, only 7% say meeting those targets is a quantified measure of success. Diversity must be incorporated into role design, opening recruitment to people with different backgrounds, life experiences, capabilities and problem-solving styles, with quotas for digital hiring. Governments should make selection panels diverse, offer flexible working and eliminate gender pay gaps.
Key questions to consider:
  • How do we bridge the gap between more digitally adept workers and those who lack skills or confidence?
  • How can we create the right mix of training options to meet the needs and preferences of our workforce?
  • Can we draw on external expertise to help build workforce skills?
  • How can we use purpose to attract the best digital talent?
  • What could we do to improve diversity and inclusion?

Conclusion

Traditional approaches to skills development and recruitment will not give governments the kind of capabilities and working environments they need to deliver efficient, digital services that revolutionize the citizen experience. To make the most of digital transformation, the future workforce strategy should be aligned closely with the national digital strategy, to determine what skills are needed and how to acquire them.

The future workforce will be far more fluid, with individuals working in various multidisciplinary teams at different times, often with gig workers or specialists from external organizations. Conventional training will be replaced by dynamic, ongoing learning covering technical and “soft” skills, with increasing use of virtual courses and secondments, and digital academies that offer professional qualifications in important areas of technology. Innovative new approaches to accessing skills include “talent platforms,” social media and other hubs.

These changes mean leaders need new ways to manage a workforce consisting of a wider variety of people, increasingly nonpermanent staff, including vetting and onboarding. And, in the rush to access skills, public sector organizations should not forget the huge potential of their existing workers, of all ages, who can get a new lease of life from upskilling and job rotation, as they focus on the enhanced citizen experience. 

Summary

Public sector organizations cannot rely on outmoded approaches to workforce planning and training. To become more responsive to citizen needs, they need to dynamically plan for different scenarios, plug skills gaps and tap into new sources of talent. New types of learning, delivered in exciting and convenient ways — such as on the job, virtual courses and secondments — can help workers enhance both their technical and soft skills and drive digital transformation. New deployment models will improve agility to respond to changing circumstances.

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