When aiming to bring government into the internet age, the first question to ask is no longer why, nor what – but who.
We know our governments need digital transformation, and that they needed it yesterday. They need to do more with less, deliver services faster, more equitably and in a personalized way, and in a way that prevents corruption. By now, we’re also familiar with the tools that can get us there: cloud, interoperability, digital ID, digital signature, digital services, and more. Furthermore, we’ve identified a common enemy: paper.
But who, exactly, is going to design, build and implement all these digital tools? Who is going to use them? Digitalization and automation will change jobs. Who is going to adapt?
The answer to these questions is the all-important, yet under-recognized secret sauce in any government reform effort: civil servants. Simply put, if governments don’t put civil servants at the forefront of their digital transformation initiatives, there will be no transformation. What there will be is all too familiar: strategies that sit on shelves, big IT projects that are bottomless money pits, and systems that are left unused while processes continue to be conducted on paper.
What is perhaps worse than wasting money is wasting enthusiasm. Following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments around the region have turned to digital tools to promote some semblance of continuity. This is a big change. In the early 2000s e-government was a fringe issue pushed by a handful of true believers. In the 2010s digital government began to find its space as an upstart compared to more established development topics such as health, infrastructure and education. In the 2020s, digital transformation emerged as a panacea – occasionally with exaggerated expectations and untested claims.
Even with its drawbacks, prominence on the policy agenda is a fleeting, precious resource that must be exploited. The best way to seize the moment is by delivering. Delivering services. Delivering efficiency. Delivering transformation.
A daunting challenge
A few numbers from the new IDB publication, “Digital Transformation and Public Employment: the Future of Government Work,” illustrates that a daunting challenge awaits us:
- 64% of the over 700 public managers surveyed reported having participated in a technology project that faced difficulties due to a shortage of staff skills in the last five years
- 51% of public managers surveyed reported currently facing a severe shortage of data analysis skills
- 18 of the 24 national digital government directors surveyed reported that budget limitations prevented them from hiring the necessary staff in the preceding year
- 67% of public managers surveyed think that resistance to change is a severe obstacle to reforms, like digital transformation, that can modify and eliminate jobs
These numbers paint a picture of governments with severe digital talent gaps, insufficient budget to capture digital talent, and likely resistance to change.
The path forward
Based on case studies from around the world, consultations with experts, and a set of novel surveys of public managers, digital government directors and Chilean civil servants, we have compiled four recommendations to help governments tackle the human capital-related challenges of digital transformation:
- Strengthen the mechanisms for attracting and retaining digital talent: Some digital specialists will want to make a career in government; others will want to do a two-year stint. Governments should create employment modalities to accommodate these various interests and prioritize efficient and technically-focused recruitment procedures.
- Invest in massive digital training: From leaders to managers to digital specialists themselves, the rapid pace of technological change means that all public servants will not only require a baseline understanding of digital transformation, but also constant knowledge updates and skills upgrades.
- Create mechanisms to adapt to the disruptions in work of current civil servants: A range of tools, including participatory design, communications, retraining, internal transfers and occasionally separations take on heightened importance in contexts of digital transformation, especially those projects with components of automation that can eliminate certain paper-based jobs. However, “change management” is only useful to the extent it is planned together with the reforms themselves.
- Bring together the key players in charge of digital government, civil service management and the budget: Digital government authorities know what changes are on the horizon and what functions will be affected; civil service authorities know who the public servants are, their competencies and the options for training and internal transfers; and budget authorities know the fiscal space available to finance recruitment, training, and other structural changes. These three institutions are not often found at the same table – but that has to change if governments are to confront the human capital challenges of digital transformation head on.
It appears that digital government is here to stay. But just how transformational it is has yet to be decided. Focusing on people is a good place to start.