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Assessing government training needs for the future of digital service delivery

As the Government of Canada (GC) works to improve how it designs and delivers services, we can look to use new tools, methods and practices to help us build our capacity to get there. People — public servants — remain at the centre of these efforts. So, when we teamed up with the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University late last year to better understand and assess the current training needs for digital disciplines across the GC, we started by talking to public servants. By directly engaging with them, we’re able to build a better understanding of their needs and how we can meet them. The full Report can be found on Dalhousie’s website.

The study was guided by a set of key questions related to the identification and prevalence of key digital disciplines and skills in government, the government’s current training capacities, and some of the challenges (and opportunities) for skills development and training in the future. The study’s findings were based on three key pieces of research, each carried out by the university. First, an environmental scan of existing training programs in the GC and elsewhere; next, both a randomized and open survey for two groups of public servants who assessed their skills and training needs: those who design, develop or deliver digital services (e.g., CS group), and those who impact digital service delivery through their work in policy or operational positions (non-CS group); and finally, consultations with senior leaders, such as Chief Information Officers, across government.

So what did we learn?

Though the data indicates that the GC has the capacity to deliver using traditional methods, the evidence reinforces that it may not have the required skills to design and deliver services differently in the future, using new practices and tools. For an overwhelming proportion of the disciplines in which participants assessed themselves (over 80 per cent for CS group, and 87 per cent for non-CS group), there was not sufficient capacity at the advanced level, and little in the way of excess capacity should demand increase.

The research also found that the relevance of skills was tied to their use. This could be considered a barrier in convincing people to develop skills they don’t yet need to use, or the utility of training “about” skills, rather than “in” them. The association of work relevance with training requests could also prevent those seeking training in skills that are not immediately used in their work, but are relevant to the larger organization, or will be relevant in the future.

Anticipatory training is critical if the government is going to change how it delivers services. Dalhousie’s research revealed a heightened sensitivity amongst responders to the reality that with technological disruption, the skills required for today may not be relevant tomorrow, and that proactive training and development is a fundamental enabler.

Lack of opportunity, and lack of knowledge of opportunity were commonly reported barriers to training. Both CS and non-CS groups reported a lack of offerings, local opportunities, and time as barriers to training. Other barriers identified include a perception that there was a lack of support from management for training, and that digital training was not in their personal development plans, as training is only for current, job-specific skills.

The research highlighted the importance of providing practical learning opportunities and working in multidisciplinary settings. Participants reported that when they want to learn new skills, they use diverse and informal methods like working in groups with a variety of skill sets. Dalhousie’s research suggests that effective digital strategies require integrated and collaborative actions across traditionally distinct groups like policy, IT and communications. Senior leaders commented that digital training should consider both the technical and business perspectives, and encouraged mixing the two, meaning helping technologists understand the business side, and the business side to move closer to the technology and understand its implementation.

The report identified several training recommendations that the GC should consider: broaden and deepen digital literacy, foster a more proactive training culture, continually measure and refine digital training across disciplines, create various training streams, and strengthen hands-on opportunities to learn by doing.

We want to thank Dr. Sandra Toze, Dr. Markus Sharaput, and Dr. Jeffrey Roy, Lisette Muaror-Wilson, and Jennifer Urich from the Dalhousie Faculty of Management, as well as GC stakeholders, and the thousands of public servants who took the time to participate in this study.

By embarking on a relatively new area of discovery in government, our hope is that this report serves as a useful foundation for additional and continuous research to inform how we can empower public servants, build our capacity in new disciplines, and provide meaningful and relevant opportunities for learning and development.