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Public sector digital trends 2023 collection | Article

Digital, data and technology skills

With the growing pressure on finances, it may be tempting for public services to look at IT budgets as an easy source of savings in 2023. But in practice, but there will need to be substantial investment in new technology, in replacing older systems and in digital transformation programmes to generate the service improvements being demanded.

Most CIOs will need to work harder than ever in 2023 to demonstrate value for money and business cases, especially in the higher risk and more complex areas where disentangling ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ benefits can be somewhat elusive.

“With around 4000 current DDaT vacancies across UK government, there will be strong demand for DDaT capacity and skills just to support ‘in-flight’ programmes and those that address current top priorities. It will be a challenging year ahead”

Rob Anderson, Research Director, GlobalData Technology

This challenge comes in the face of significant skills shortages as the public sector struggles to compete for specialists. The public sector is likely to face a stark choice in 2023 of increasing pay in some of these areas (in the face of a public sector pay squeeze) or paying considerably more to buy them in as interim contractors or consultants.

“Agility is the number one skill to screen for when recruiting. The world is evolving faster than employees can keep up”

Luc Velghe, Chief Digital Officer City of Kortrijk, Belgium

The public sector will need to consider its pay policies for digital and technical roles, avoiding outdated pay and reward structures which constrain opportunities to compete in recruiting and retaining digital talent.

Figure 1: Internal skill shortage and their impacts on digital delivery

Our research also shows that success in digital transformation in public organisations, depends on leadership from the very top of the organisation – politicians, chief executives, and directors of key services. The potential impacts of skill shortage on digital delivery capabilities are shown in Figure 1. This can only be overcome by ownership of the digital agenda being taken by the whole organisation from the most senior levels, rather than responsibility being confined to the IT department. Real progress in transformation and innovation can be made in how public bodies function, in their cultures and in successful use of technologies and data by taking this whole-organisation approach.

2023 will also see the rise of the ‘digitally competent’ chief executive and a growth in ‘digitally aware’ political leaders in local public services, including local councils. These will be the trail-blazing digital public service organisations.

“Dorset Council set out in 2019 to be a digitally-enabled council, this is embedded in our council plan – it is vital that in the twenty first century we have the skills, behaviours and approach across all council services not just IT. As CEO, I see this as being integral to our success as a modern public service”

Matt Prosser, Chief Executive Officer, Dorset Council, England

Related to this, this year’s analysis revealed evidence of the merging of CDO and CIO roles where they have been previously separated to create a distinction between ‘IT operational management’ and ‘digital transformation’:

  1. With the tighter interdependence of ‘digital’ and ‘IT’, linking the roles together makes sense and saves money; many public bodies now ‘get’ the difference between ‘IT’ and ‘Digital’.
  2. To be successful, a CDO needs to grasp the risks, opportunities and management of complex technology, and a CIO must connect with board level business issues, which underpin digital transformation. Merging the roles is therefore logical.
  3. Leading CIOs involved in this research already describe themselves as agents and champions of digital change, not just as suppliers and managers of technologies and systems.
  4. The possibilities of ‘data’ as a key strategic resource requires leadership at senior levels but creating a separate Chief Data Officer is an overhead that some may not be able to afford.

The growth of ‘Digital Data and Technology’ (DDAT) roles is an example of this, bringing relevant disciplines together, with the expectation of a balance of outward- and inward-looking responsibilities. Success will depend on building a digital community and culture that embraces the possibilities, and digital leadership capable of fulfilling the combined role, with a mix of political, technical, and business awareness.

“Demand for change is only going to grow. I try to arrange a couple of catch-ups with senior leaders each week, laying the seeds for new ideas.”

Allan Lightbourne, Chief Digital Officer, Tauranga City Council, Aotearoa New Zealand

Working in collaboration with Solace and the Local Government Delivery Council in the UK, Socitm will undertake further research and development of support services in 2023 to raise awareness of digital leadership and transformation potential amongst the senior executive community, particularly those who lack the relevant knowledge and experience. This joint work will include the growing need to embrace ethical, responsible and secure use of technologies and data, central to generating public trust, protecting democracy and addressing inclusion and diversity (see the Socitm ‘data hub’ resources).