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UKA Live

An expert panel, inclduing Alan Banks, NETbuilder, discusses whether the health and public sector have the right skills in-house today to deliver transformation and if not how can we build sustainable skills and capability.

Alan Banks, Managing Director of NETbuilder, highlights the challenges and possible solutions in building an in-house capability

One of the crucial elements in the drive towards digital transformation of the public sector is the need for the skills and capabilities to make it possible.

Everyone agrees on its importance, and that it is a continual problem as the sector struggles to acquire, equip and retain the right people. They are looking for ways to bridge their skills gaps and ensure that the solutions stay in place rather than acting as a temporary fix.

This provided the focus of a recent UKA Live discussion in which I participated with Owen Powell, ICT director of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, Rehana Ramesh, assistant director customer services, digital and data, at Hackney Council, Gemma Elsworth, head of digital capability at DWP Digital, and UKA publisher Helen Olsen Bedford.

There was agreement that organisations are likely to have some of the necessary skills in place but not enough, with the demand for digital and the rapid pace of change making it hard to find and then hold on to people.

Lacking a clear picture

But it is more complex, as many organisations do not have a clear picture of the skills they need or those that their staff already possess or can develop. They can see job roles and qualifications, but do not have the more nuanced and granular perspective to fully understand their people’s capabilities.

If they want to the bridge the gap successfully they need to build a better understanding of existing internal skills, the details of what additional skills they need, and develop the training and knowledge transfer to build up and consolidate in-house resource.

This is not easy, especially when it involves significant costs and time. The discussion identified a number of common problems, including that digital and other teams are fully occupied in supporting ‘business as usual’ and developing new systems. As Owen Powell put it: “It’s a capacity thing, and carving out time for skills development is very tricky.”

Organisations tend, therefore, to rely heavily on external consultants to plug gaps, and while there is often talk about knowledge transfer to build in-house skills, many will not provide it effectively. The painful fact is that it is often not in their interest to do so, as they wish to protect their business model of deploying their expertise over the short term.

It is also possible that public bodies could have the wrong balance, with plenty of recent graduates and a handful of very senior people, but not enough mid level in between to provide continuity of support and development.

Retention issue

Retention is a big challenge. It is no secret that public sector organisations cannot match many in the private sector for salaries, which often tempts talented people away, and the budget constraints that restrain salaries in the sector are very unlikely to go away. Whilst many people are motivated to work in public services because of the social value it provides, this is a persistent pressure that will never go away.

Inevitably, this leads to a heavy dependence on external contractors to plug short and long term gaps, which comes with a significant price tag. Many organisations are trying to overcome this with an emphasis on knowledge transfer in their contracts, but while plenty of suppliers are ready to accept the principle, it does not always come across in practice.

One factor is that external people with a lot of experience and expertise are not necessarily trainers and may not have the patience for a less formal approach to knowledge transfer, especially when they are expected to deliver a project on a tight timeframe. This relates to the situation in which, while everybody recognises there is always scope to learn a lot on the job, deadlines often squeeze the time and undermine the attitude that makes this possible. This can hinder an organisation’s efforts to cultivate a learning culture.

There also has to be a recognition of the importance of soft skills. These include capabilities such as communication, engagement, the ability to properly document business requirements, solution developments and leadership. These involve elements of human interaction that are usually picked up through experience rather than a training course but can be accelerated and enhanced with appropriate training.

Positive possibilities

In summary, this all creates a major challenge, but the discussion brought out suggestions for filling this skills gap.

One is to focus contracts and the approach to delivering projects on outcomes that include the transfer of skills as part of each stage.

Another is that the initial training on a technology is provided in-house, then external experts are brought in to shadow them and provide advice through the early months of its use. The initial cost of this can be similar to that of using an external person to lead the project, but it gives staff more confidence and contributes to building sustainable in-house skills.

It also needs an effort to ensure that employees understand the importance of acquiring the skills. There are plenty of stories of organisations teaching people how to use digital and data resources only for very few to do so as many did not see how it relates to their jobs.

“We need to get people signed up to the skills building,” said Rehana Ramesh, adding that there is a better chance of achieving this through avoiding the use of jargon, conveying what needs to be done in everyday language and then looking at how it can be delivered digitally.

Self-assessment

People should also be encouraged to consider their own skills profile. Gemma Elsworth said that the Department for Work and Pensions has a careers toolbox to encourage people to do this, while acknowledging that it takes an effort to develop the engaging content to get people using it.  

There is also the fact that some suppliers are providing free training with the provision of their technology as they know that they cannot sell it if people cannot use it. The extent of this is limited but it makes a positive contribution and can be used to advantage.

Underlying all this is that collaboration is always being promoted as a virtue in the public sector, and while organisations have to work out solutions individually, they can learn a lot from each other’s experiences. Talking to each other and sharing can make a big contribution to filling the skills gaps.

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