Tech 100: 'Across government we’re going to have to see ourselves as a far more flexible organisation than we have in the past'
“I would say for anyone to be an effective public servant for the future you need to have a core digital capability. But then above that we also need to be very clear about the additional skills that you need to be running different kinds of individual projects and programmes.”
As far as Sarah Davidson, the Scottish Government’s director general for communities, is concerned, times are changing for those within the public sector. It is against that backdrop that government intend to set up a digital academy mirroring a model that has operated in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for almost two years now.
The DWP has pitched in with advice while the Government Digital Service, which the Cabinet Office announced in September will take ownership of the DWP’s digital academy to offer training to civil servants across Whitehall, will help get it up and running.
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“That’s essentially to increase the availability of the talent pool and to make sure we are developing our own in-house talent with the skills that it needs rather than always going to the market,” says Davidson. “It will inevitably be a mixed experience in the market and, although we’re doing all we can to boost that, I think we need to have a good core capability as well.”
Likely to be located within the Scottish Government, this in-house academy “would be available for certainly the wider Scottish Government family” while Davidson anticipates wider parts of the public sector will be able to utilise it as well.
Incorporating a digital component to the government’s modern apprenticeship programmes will similarly be a focus. “It’s the one area we’ve been trying to grow in a time of a recruitment freeze. We’ve already got a number on the IT pathway and we’re developing a specific digital one just now.”
Government officials kicked off a second skills survey earlier this month to assess where both gaps and shortages exist within the public and the private sector.
The first exercise failed to gain plaudits from Audit Scotland – the Scottish Government did not perform a skills gap survey across the public sector until August 2014, two years after the spending watchdog had called for one – and ultimately led to Davidson sitting through a far from smooth evidence session of the Scottish Parliament’s then Public Audit Committee.
“You have come along and given us a pitch as if nothing is wrong,” former Scottish Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon told the director general in her trademark direct approach. One of Davidson’s more relaxing mornings? “Something I always look forward to,” she laughs.
“We have absolutely no doubt what that [skills survey] will tell us, that there remains a gap,” adds Davidson. “One of the things I am very keen that we do is that we don’t regard these as gaps that we always and permanently fill by going to the market – we have to start building within organisations the capability that we need.”
Davidson’s appearance at Holyrood last September came just a few weeks after the Digital Transformation Service had been established. The body works with the public sector on a cost-recovery basis to help deliver digital projects where there is not necessarily sufficient in-house talent to deliver them. Work has been carried out with 40 clients in the past 14 months, the initial step being digital maturity assessments, which allow public bodies to gauge their progress. As a result, Davidson is hoping the next skills survey will shed light on specifics.
“I suppose it’s worth recognising that in the wider public sector, history has not always shown that central government turning up and saying, ‘How can we help?’ has been welcomed,” she adds. “I think again it does give a sense that we’re moving to a more collaborative place across the public sector where this is seen as a real resource, as a positive thing.
“It doesn’t make any sense if you’re a small public body with a big programme to deliver, which is probably a one-off, for you to build up a big in-house resource that not only you’ll probably struggle to get that from the market any way because it doesn’t look like a good long-term proposition and then you’ve got to divest yourselves at the end of it. The sense that somebody is there to hold your hand through that process, I think, is really helpful.”
After all, the public sector does not have the easiest job when it comes to attracting talent. “It is,” acknowledges Davidson on the notion that being unable to compete with the private sector on salaries remains a consistent problem. “And we have to be realistic about that.
“There is a bit of work going on at UK level at the moment in the Cabinet Office. Of course our pay flexibilities are still set at UK level so there is a limited extent to which we can diverge from those ourselves in Scotland. But looking at a number of the key professions – commercial, digital – they’re looking at whether they need to be a bit more flexible on the constraints. Of course all that does is help you a bit more with the rules, it doesn’t actually give you money you don’t have to pay people with.”
What flexibility the Scottish Government does have it has used to offer a “slightly higher salary than we normally would” for an incoming chief digital officer to lead on the devolution of social security powers, reveals Davidson. “We need to keep on telling the story and encouraging people who work for us in digital to help tell the story about what you do get from the benefit of working in government," she says.
“It is absolutely true that people who come into us from private sector agency experience elsewhere tend to be blown away at the outset by the breadth of what they get to do, the immediacy of it and the difference it makes to people’s lives.
“I’ve spoken to a number of people who knowingly took a salary cut that they didn’t have to take to come into government because they really, really wanted to get their hands on that kind of stuff. Now do I think they’ll stay forever? Probably not. But that’s not necessarily a problem if we keep presenting that face to the outside and syphoning people through.
“Actually I think it would be great to have people out there in the tech industry in Scotland who have experience of working in government and that’s partly why we’re looking at this skills survey as being a double header between public sector and private sector. We need to see ourselves as Scotland PLC talent rather than having a hardball between public and private sector.”
Individuals passing through CodeClan, launched last year as Scotland’s first digital skills academy, are being brought into government to give them experience, for instance. Those leading the three main teams working for Colin Cook, head of the digital public services and business transformation division, are female and early discussions are under way among civil servants that could see a network for women working in government tech launched.
“We have to be realistic about the market we’re operating in but so far I think there is good evidence we do have a distinctive offering which at least for a period of people’s careers brings them in and gives them something,” says Davidson.
“Actually, more generally across government as a whole, we’re going to have to see ourselves as a far more flexible, open, fluid organisation than we have in the past.”
Through the digital champions scheme – which has worked with 120 chief executives or board-level senior executives from public bodies and the third sector – and the Scottish Leaders Forum – which brings together chief executives from across the two sectors – Davidson is convinced she’s not the only one to have reached the conclusion that change is necessary.
“If I compare it to when I first came into this job, which is two-and-a-half years ago now, there is a palpable sense among the leadership of the Scottish public sector that digital really matters and either they are already with the programme or they know they need to get with it as opposed to, ‘That is something out there I need to start worrying about at some point’. That is really encouraging.”