Israel drove digital transformation by putting people first

From film screenings to savvy training strategies, Israel has a different approach to digital skills

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Government departments aren’t famed for putting on film screenings. But Digital Israel, the country’s initiative tasked to make government work smarter for its citizens, took the affecting British film, “I, Daniel Blake”, on a roadshow around the Israeli government.

The film explores an elderly working class man navigating the UK benefits system, trying and failing to use its digital interface. It speaks for itself as a fictitious example of a government department not understanding the needs of its citizens or designing a system with its most vulnerable users in mind.

It’s therefore fitting that Digital Israel’s mission statement — “it’s all about people, the rest is technology” — is its starting point for both digital transformation and digital skills. People are at the centre of Israel’s digital strategy; the scheme is viewed as an investment in human capital, designed to provide social mobility opportunities.

Established five years ago in 2014, Digital Israel is now a core pillar of Israel’s government infrastructure. To get there, the team used a careful combination of user understanding, upskilling of senior staff and savvy employment strategies to help public servants understand that digital skills are much more than just systems or dashboards.

Understanding the user

Israel’s fast-moving tech sector — the country is known as the “start-up nation” — might give you the impression that every citizen is a tech-savvy digital native.

But 20% of Israelis are not online, with elderly citizens least likely to engage. They are also faced with religious challenges. For example, orthodox citizens have sensitivities around using the internet, some opting for a “kosher” version that blocks “immodest” content.

It was important to Digital Israel to reflect experiences like these, in order to properly build its systems and correctly skill its employees.

“Our services cannot have the hallmarks of having been built in a faraway Department,” said Merav Horev, Vice President of Education at Digital Israel. She added: “You first have to explore what a population looks like, to find out who suffers as a result of the digital divide.”

This culture of prioritising user needs is not unique to Digital Israel; the thinking was adapted from the UK’s Government Digital Services (GDS). But its approach to understanding its citizens was adapted and extended to understanding its own pack of civil servants.

Bringing insiders along with you

Digital Israel’s people-first approach to digital skills is designed to encourage digital natives to flourish — but also bring digital immigrants along with them.

The agency’s Digital Leaders initiative — now in its fourth cohort — is a year-long program designed to pull together a mixed group of mid-level and senior civil servants to transform their awareness and understanding of digital.

Understanding age — that someone later in life is likely a “digital immigrant” rather than a “digital native” — is key to the program’s success. Both natives and immigrants bring different skills to the training; the mix of senior and mid-level participants means that decision-makers are challenged by those responsible for delivery.

“We need senior people to understand that young people can be called on to do more than just fix their computer”

The scheme familiarises its participants with local trends and leading changes in the digital space before a seminar at Harvard Business School, studying models for success and failure through case studies and interaction with global digital leaders.

Participants then work together on group projects, cutting across different government departments and municipalities.

But members get more from the program than a set of core skills or digital tools. Horev said she hoped that members leave the scheme with a renewed sense of urgency; “a knowledge that you can’t continue the way it’s always been”.

Delegates then become advocates for digital in their home ministry, spreading this urgency to others.

Initially targeted at just central government departments, the scheme was later extended to more localised municipalities.

Here, Horev found the immediate sense of urgency for which she was advocating; compared to central government, the pressure raised when the citizen is “in your backyard every day”.

For both national and local schemes, it’s vital that participating civil servants should be diverse in terms of gender, age and ethnicity. Both employees of execution and regulatory ministries are considered for a place.

For Horev, it was most important that senior participants were responsible for their own learning.

“We need senior people to understand that young people can be called on to do more than just fix their computer,” she warned.

Bringing outsiders in

Alongside its upskilling program, Digital Israel also focused on recruiting advocates for new skills directly into government. New hires varied from data scientists to anthropologists, brought in to rethink and redesign processes with the user at the centre.

While there is prestige attached to working in government, moving to a government department represents a big cultural shift from the private sector.

“Israel is the “start up nation”, but we could not see that DNA in the government,” said Shai-lee Spigelman, CEO of Digital Israel, when appearing on Dr. Tanya Filer’s Tech States podcast last year. Her focus was to leverage the digital transformation going on outside of government and bring the revolution inside.

Attracting top digital talent meant recruiting less like a government department and more like a start-up. Digital Israel explored paying market rates, speeding up the recruitment process, and considering secondments.

Fundamentally, this meant civil servants understanding and advocating that a government career may no longer be for life, but instead a few years before going back into the private sector.

To ensure cross-government buy-in, Digital Israel focused on recruiting Chief Digital Officers for each ministry, translating the IT side for civil servants with an eye on the citizen at all times. These recruits were often product managers with a tech background from the private sector.

It was important to not separate the government from the advanced tech industry building itself outside. “Civil servants don’t lead in a vacuum,” Horev stressed. “They are constantly being challenged by the digital age.”

Perceptions started to shift, so that a private sector career was seen as an asset to a government department, and public sector experience was welcomed at a start-up.

From film screenings, to empowering senior civil servants to become digital advocates, to placing digital disruptors in departments, Digital Israel is unafraid to challenge the way things have always been done. — Emma Sisk

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Aneta Pawlik)

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