How will digitisation impact the public sector workforce?


A new report published by the TUC is warning about the threat that digitisation in the public sector can pose to jobs, but Government Transformation spoke to experts to find out how they see the impact of technology playing out.

The arrival of Covid-19 marked a milestone in the digitisation of the public sector workforce and delivery. Government Digital Service reinforced last year its commitment to leverage this digital acceleration and continue to make digital a top priority for government and public services.

However, a new report by the TUC raises concerns about the impact to jobs that digitisation can have in the public sector workforce, particularly among groups already affected by inequalities. Although the study highlights the opportunities and benefits that digitisation has for better and more cost-effective public services, it also warns about the skills gap and the potential negative effect to jobs as a consequence of automation.

The concerns are shared by other organisations. The OECD estimates that 14% of workers worldwide will lose their jobs to digitisation, while trade union Unite claims that over 230,000 of its 1.4 million members could lose their jobs to automation by 2035, with those workers in healthcare and local government at greatest risk.

To avoid this scenario, the TUC includes a series of recommendations for the government, including investment in digital training and reskilling of the public sector workforce. It also says that any digitisation implementations should be done in conformity with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), which requires public institutions to consider how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act, and makes a duty to advance equality of opportunity and eliminate discrimination.

Empowering the workforce through digital

Not everyone, however, thinks that digitisation poses a threat to jobs in the public sector. Former CIO of Essex County Council, David Wilde, says that the last decade's investment in STEM has helped moving the future workforce to being better equipped in a digital setting and the public sector should be able to benefit from that.

"It's fascinating that the TUC and OECD are talking about major job losses in healthcare thanks to automation yet we have a massive staffing crisis in both primary and acute healthcare today and the population is only going to get older and increase demand - so how about focussing on using digital to bridge the supply and demand gap?" Wilde says.

"As for local government, social care (part of that health ecosystem) is a major employer and digital is helping to meet demand rather than reduce workforce. Other areas are reducing thanks to automation but digital is creating new opportunities in local government's other core business - place shaping."

Romy Hughes, a Director at business consultancy Brightman, thinks that although the report’s recommendations are very relevant to the public sector, there is an excessive focus on the task -level digitisation of existing roles.

“I think it misses the point in the sense that digital transformation is about how you deliver value in a better way, which potentially changes work drastically,” she says. “Digital transformation is a much longer-term view of value.”

Hughes adds that, after reading the report, some workers might be concerned about losing their jobs tomorrow as a result of automation, something that she says, “simply won’t be like that”. Digital transformation in the public sector remains slow, particularly when compared to the private sector, and any changes will happen gradually.

Georgina Maratheftis, Associate Director for Public Local Services at trade body techUK, adds that digitising public services goes beyond the technology, and that to be “truly digital”, the right culture and infrastructure need to be in place first.

“That means service leads and front-line staff feel empowered to do things differently and utilise digital technologies to improve outcomes for people and places,” Maratheftis says. “Senior leaders must invest in both people and technology.

“Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, for example, can help reduce demand, meet rising citizen expectations while also freeing up employees' time to focus on other key areas. It’s not the case of technology displacing a team or service but complementing it to truly be user-centric.” 

Skills, skills, skills

Hughes agrees with the report in that the public sector needs to take a more strategic and long-term view of skills and jobs that require digitisation. It must develop ongoing training programmes to avoid a workforce exodus to the private sector, where digital transformation is happening at a faster rate.

“There’s a need to keep the public sector workforce relevant in terms of skills, so there absolutely needs to be a more strategic view of what those skills are,” Hughes adds. “I think that the idea of having that ongoing training path for people and having that as part of their day-to-day working life is really important.”

On a similar note, Maratheftis believes that now is the time for employers in the public sector to consider how the implementation of digital initiatives can help retain talent, in addition to recruiting it.

“The report is right to call for investment in training and upskilling the workforce to unlock the full potential of digital, both for personal development and in delivering better services,” says Maratheftis.

techUK has in the past called on government to put in place the necessary infrastructure and resources to meet industry’s digital opportunities, something that Maratheftis says can be replicated in the public sector.

Instead of slowing down the path of digitisation, Hughes says that the public sector needs to be able to articulate a higher value proposition and become a more attractive place to work, particularly to a digital native younger workforce.

“One of the things that did concern me is that the report seems to be suggesting the pace of digitisation potentially needs to slow down,” Hughes says. “But you need to bear in mind here that public sector still needs to be an attractive destination for people entering the job market.

“I think there’s the danger that the public sector doesn't manage to attract the younger generation, if we don't move at the pace of digital transformation.”

(Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash.)

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