How can government deliver successful mentorship programmes?

Government-backed mentorship programmes offer a way to upskill staff in emerging or specialised areas like coding, data and AI - while promoting inclusivity within the civil service. With digital talent in demand, dedicated mentorships programmes can also help to embed and improve digital, data and technology skills across departments.

However, with the rise of these schemes comes the responsibility to deliver them successfully, producing valuable outcomes with measurable benefits that make sure they don't simply fizzle out. 

Government Transformation Magazine spoke to three civil servants involved in data science mentorship schemes -  two delivering these programmes and one ex-mentee - to get their perspectives on how effective and long-lasting mentorship programmes can be delivered in government.   

Top learnings 

A range of factors influence the success of mentorship initiatives. On the delivery side, these include: Ensuring investment is secured in order to stimulate enthusiasm and increase participation figures; guaranteeing buy-in from key parties; preventing duplication of work; and promoting strong time management amongst mentees in order to achieve the most effective results.

From a mentee perspective, the most important factor is pairing - ensuring that the right person has the skillset to introduce the mentee to new methods and people. 

It can feel like the ‘stars need to align’ for mentorship success

Tom Wilkinson is the Scottish Government's Chief Data Officer who has delivered data science mentoring schemes all over the world, including working as a site lead for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Data ScienceTom Wilkinson Campus scheme. He said a number of factors need to come together in order to successfully deliver a mentorship programme.

The most important factor is cooperation across the public sector to ensure the scheme is relevant and effective, he said. This includes securing buy-in at a senior level and ensuring the programme aligns with current HR strategy. 

Wilkinson admits it can feel "like the stars need to align" in order to get a programme off successful off the ground.

Additionally, the work does not stop once the scheme has started. Wilkinson highlighted how investment in promotion is key to ensuring long-term engagement. He suggests making lists of potential mentors and mentees to keep the ball rolling.  

On a practical level, Wilkinson has a number of tips. Firstly, the projects that are worked on during mentorship programmes must align with the business interests of the government organisation, as well as participant's passions, in order to secure valuable outcomes for the public sector. 

Avoiding the duplication of projects to ensure the best use of resources is also key on a practical level; this is especially important when volunteers are involved in the scheme as it is important to ensure they get the most from their time. 

Ultimately, for Wilkinson, a successful programme requires both "enthusiastic mentors and enthusiastic mentees" - with wellbeing being a key, and often overlooked, aspect of ensuring a programme’s longevity.  

He emphasised the value of "mutual mentoring", where both mentor and mentee can learn from each other as this promotes greater enthusiasm and engagement. 

Measuring the success of a mentorship programme is not just about growth in participation, but the "longevity of mentoring relationships and mentors' participation in the scheme, as well as qualitative feedback," he said.

Building skills that go beyond data 

Joyce Dalgleish is Scottish Government Business Change Manager and oversees the Scottish Data Science Accelerator, a short-term programme aimed at upskilling public sector workers in their data skills. 

She highlighted how the practical side of some of the projects in the scheme have already become apparent; one project uses satellite data to collect agriculture statistics and is currently being rolled out across Scotland. 

However, beyond this result, Dalgleish emphasised the importance of ensuring that a mentorship programme actually delivers on what it sets out to do - develop and engage public sector workers. She explained how a successful mentorship programme is not just about technical skills:  "It is also about guiding people to improve their prioritisation, time management, (understanding of) users need’ and even their presentation skills."

She added: "It is also about nurturing an understanding of how to effectively problem solve and move forward, asking 'what's the best small step we can make towards this project?"

For Dalgleish, the success of any scheme "provides that step into thinking differently and giving somebody the space to explore."

The importance of pairing

Helen Lankester is a Geospatial Information Specialist at the UK Hydrographic Office and was a past mentee on the Data Science Accelerator scheme delivered by the ONS. 

She highlighted how the pairing process was the most important aspect of making the scheme successful, saying "mentor and mentee must be paired correctly". 

Lankester emphasised the value in both the mentor and mentee having Photo_Helen_Gov_Transformation (1) complementary skills and interests to build a strong relationship.

The practical outcome of the scheme for her was the testing and refining of an AI tool used to help analyse bathymetric survey data. However, what made the experience successful was not only the skills she gained and the output she produced, but also the connections she made through networking via her mentor. 

Lankester mentioned that as part of the mentorship scheme, the ONS organised "incredibly useful" stand-ups amongst participants. This is where other members are given the opportunity to help each other fix problems and build connections.  

She reflected on how the mentorship programme allowed her to build confidence with the latest technology and put this to practical use. “New technologies are delivering more data than ever before, and I think it’s important that government officials are trained to effectively process and understand this data to support the public sector," she said. 

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