Civil Servants to undertake data training: ‘This will be the biggest learning moment ever.'

The UK Civil Service is building out its data capability with a day’s worth of training for all its staff as part of a new reform programme launched by the Cabinet Office. 

The One Big Thing is a new annual initiative that will focus on taking cross-government action around a reform priority. The focus in 2023 is data upskilling - with the aim being for all Civil Servants to undertake a day of dedicated data training this autumn. This will play an important role in the digital, data and capability missions of the government’s reform focus in creating ‘a modern Civil Service’

“This will be one of the biggest learning moments for the Civil Service ever - and is very much a cross-government effort," says Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of NHS Blood and Transplant and Senior Responsible Owner for One Big Thing. "It is quite rare for all civil servants to take shared action together in this way."

Farrar spoke to Government Transformation Magazine about what this day of data training will entail and what it hopes to achieve in the long term. 

Data for all levels 

Starting in September, the training will involve seven hours worth of data upskilling, which Civil Servants can complete over time and at their own pace. In order for it to be applicable to half a million Civil Servants, the core training will cater to three different levels of data confidence: awareness, working and practitioner/expert. 

The training has been created from research by the Central Digital Data Office (CDDO), which assessed what the main blockers to using data for decision-making are in the Civil Service. “This told us that the main focus of the training needs to be on encouraging civil servants to think differently and positively about data. Data is something we can all use to deliver our individual roles better,” Farrar says. 

For this reason, the first two levels of the basic training look at culture change and confidence around data, with a view to developing a “natural curiosity and understanding” among staff of the way data can be used, Farrar explains. For the expert level, training will focus on more complex topics such as data quality and data visualisation, she adds. 

Many departments will be hosting their own training as part of One Big Thing, alongside existing data skills courses provided by the Government Campus and the ONS Data Science Campus. 

A data-powered future

At the end of the day, better data leads to better services. Already, the power of data is being harnessed to tackle problems in government and help innovate policy areas. However, these skills are frustratingly hard to come by; with the high churn in data talent often cited as a key barrier to government transformation. This year's One Big Thing aims to support these efforts by ensuring that all Civil Servants are given the opportunity to grow their skills and develop their interest in data.

The training is specifically focused on a measurable uplift in data confidence, knowledge and awareness - rather than hard skills. Farrar believes it is important that this comes first: “Sparking people’s curiosity around data is more likely to ensure that they continue developing data skills or seek out further training in the long term.”

The ultimate goal is to improve data-driven policy-making and to create better public services by analysing, pooling and sharing the wealth of information and data available across government. It aligns with the objectives set out in the Declaration on Government Reform and CDDO’s 2022 to 2025 Roadmap for Digital and Data - both of which emphasise the need to upskill Civil Servants in this area. 

Farrar admits that this is a harder measure but notes that the training programme is “a strong push in the right direction.” 

The fact that data skills has been selected as the first area of focus for One Big Thing is no small matter; it signals the growing role that data analysis is expected to play in monitoring and managing how public services operate going forward. 

Government Data Forum

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