• Opinion
  • January 22, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 3

Digital leadership for the modern public service: how to close the skills gap

Opinion: Digital skills can no longer be viewed as just an “IT thing”

digital leadership

This piece was written by Ryan Androsoff, Director of Digital Leadership at the Institute on Governance and a consultant on public sector digital transformation. He was previously a co-founder of the Canadian Digital Service and has served as a senior advisor on digital government initiatives at Canada’s Treasury Board Secretariat and the OECD. 


Let’s take a step back in time 20 years to 1999. Personal computers were becoming more powerful and affordable, and increasingly a common part of work, school and home life. The internet as we now know it was barely 10 years old. Web pages were starting to populate the World Wide Web at a dizzying rate.

Governments were getting into the internet scene, and Canada was kicking off its Government On-Line initiative which sought to make the 130 most commonly used services available on-line (to which “mission accomplished” was declared in 2006). The Government of Canada had put significant investment into Government On-Line to the tune of $880 Million over those years and was recognised as a world leader in e-government service delivery. To paraphrase the 80s post-punk band Timbuk3, the future was so bright you had to wear shades.

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Yet some 20 years later there is a pervasive sense that government has fallen behind in the digital era. Public sector organisations at all levels are struggling to meet the service delivery expectations of citizens living in an Amazon and Netflix world. Capacity is generally lacking to deal nimbly with technology-driven policy issues as diverse as “fake news”, self-driving cars and the “gig economy” exemplified by the rise of companies like Uber or Airbnb.

Even meeting government’s own internal digital needs for its workforce has proven to be a challenge (Exhibit A: the Phoenix pay system) — today, too often public servants have better access to modern digital tools at home than they do at work. While laudable efforts are underway in many places, the public service in Canada has not yet achieved the digital dreams of the turn of the millennium. So what happened?

I would go so far as to argue that today every policy issue is a digital issue

Part of the answer is that digital has evolved beyond being just a back-office function and largely the purview of CIOs and their team. As our lives are increasingly intertwined with technology, the ways that we interact with institutions and each other are governed more and more by the lines of code and algorithms that lurk just below the digital surface, with far reaching regulatory and policy consequences for governments.

I would go so far as to argue that today every policy issue is a digital issue. Just look at how the signature policy initiative of the Obama administration — the Affordable Care Act — was derailed at launch by a faulty website. If we accept that digital impacts everything government does, it means that it is no longer just a technical challenge to overcome but requires a broader change in mindset and management. Digital skills can no longer be viewed as just an “IT thing”: a baseline level of digital literacy is required for every public servant, particularly for those in leadership roles.

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In Canada, this reality is starting to be realised in tangible ways with an increasing amount of interest and effort being put into the issue of how we can provide public servants with modern digital skills.

Building on similar efforts elsewhere, including the UK and Australia, in October former Treasury Board President and Minister of Digital Government Scott Brison announced the establishment of a Digital Academy for the federal government. The Canadian Digital Service has also partnered with Dalhousie University to conduct a Digital Training Needs Analysis for the federal public service.

Increasing digital skills can supercharge efforts to modernise government

Having spent the past decade working on issues around digital transformation in government, I am convinced that increasing the digital skills and knowledge of public servants is one of the most impactful ways we can supercharge ongoing efforts to modernise government. Likewise, the lack of digital literacy amongst government executives is, I believe, a root causes of some of the challenges we are seeing today for public sector organisations trying to adapt to and succeed in the digital era.

Ultimately we need to instil public service executives with what Alix Dunn calls “technical intuition” — a practical understanding of the possibilities and limits of technology, and the confidence to call BS on digital projects, policies, or practices that don’t work or could even cause harm.

That’s why I partnered with the Institute on Governance (IOG) to develop the first digital leadership course in Canada for public sector executives. In addition to having an understanding of the big strategic drivers of the digital era, there are three disciplines that we believe every government executive should have some grounding in: design thinking, digital technology and data.

We believe they also need to have an understanding of digital era management practices that can be adopted by their organisation (e.g. Agile), including the implications for recruitment and retention, procurement, and budgeting.

Finally, we believe they need exposure to a network of fellow public servants in their own organisations, across Canada and internationally, who are also working towards the underlying culture change needed to create a government fit-for-purpose in the digital era.

This is the basis for the program we put together for the first cohort of our Digital Executive Leadership Program this past December, attended by 16 government executives from 11 different federal departments and a wide diversity of job types (less than half the participants were from technology-focused roles).

We asked participants before the course how they self-assessed their level of digital literacy. The average was a 6 out of 10, with virtually everyone assessing themselves as more digitally literate than their home organisation (ranked an average of 5 out of 10). After our five-day intensive boot camp we asked participants the same question and found that the average self-assessed digital literacy had risen to 7 out of 10. Perhaps most exciting, every participant made a commitment as to something they would change about the way they approach their work going forward.

Digital leadership is a skill set and a mindset that can be taught

We will be following up to track progress, but informally I know of a number of participants who are already taking concrete actions to approach their work differently based on what they took away from the course. The encouraging implication is that digital leadership is a skill set and a mindset that can be taught, and investment can bring measurable benefits to public sector organisations.

As excited as I am about the work that we are doing at the IOG on digital skills for the public service, I’m just as excited about everyone else that is becoming active in this space including our colleagues at the Digital Academy, the Canadian Digital Service, the Ontario Digital Service and Code for Canada, to mention but a few. There are over 270,000 employees in the federal public service in Canada, and over three million Canadians who work across all levels of government.

To achieve the vision of a modern public service in Canada that is digitally literate and ready to rise to the challenges of the decades to come, we will need all hands on deck for what may prove to be one of the biggest evolutions in government in our lifetimes. — Ryan Androsoff

(Picture credit: Flickr/Mike Gifford)

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