The digital skills gap: ensuring technological acceleration doesn’t leave anyone behind
Head of Public Sector
Virgin Media O2 Business
02nd November 2022
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The Covid-19 pandemic prompted the public sector into the kind of technological shift you normally see once in a generation.
Suddenly, people were confined to their homes. In some cases, the organisations and agencies providing services across our communities were forced to improvise and act extremely quickly to meet emerging challenges for which there was no roadmap.
At the same time as they were figuring out how to adapt to new ways of working internally, local authorities faced the daunting challenge of maintaining an accurate picture of the level of need for services, and where that need was located.
There was also the added complexity of maintaining communication with residents, many of whom did not possess the means or skills to switch to exclusively communicating via smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Local authorities — and the public sector more widely – not only met these challenges head-on, but they also managed to deliver an even greater overall level of public service.
According to research conducted here at Virgin Media O2 Business, alongside the Centre of Economics and Business Research (Cebr), the pandemic accelerated digital progress in public sector organisations by more than four years. 78% of central and local government decision-makers said that Covid-19 accelerated their adoption of digital technology.
We also now know that it has resulted in:
- 5.9% higher citizen satisfaction
- 5.7% higher employee productivity
- 4.3% higher employee satisfaction
Technology is helping to deliver efficiencies and productivity boosts in the public sector, as it is elsewhere – which will help the national effort to steer the UK’s economy through tough economic headwinds.
The move towards digital-first services – which was forced upon public services to a degree – has presented a number of opportunities, as well as the obvious challenges.
For example, online services allow providers to explore a world of opportunities in the form of new online tools and platforms – potentially revolutionising how, when and where public bodies communicate with the public going forward.
By its very nature, digital transformation means that the possibilities for data collection are also greater than ever. We may only truly understand the benefits from this new era of data insights-driven decision-making decades from now – such is the scale of transformation taking place.
But looming above all of this was the constant concern that some residents were unable to feel the full benefit because of a lack of digital skills, as well as limited access to the right tech.
In this discussion we partnered with Public Sector Executive (PSE) to further understand the steps which councils have taken to address the digital skills gap and maintain the momentum in tech transformation built up since the start of the pandemic.
Chaired by myself, the panel featured insights and discussions from local council representatives.
Amid the wide-ranging discussion, some key themes stood out:
- Identifying gaps in skills and access
- Best practice for upskilling
- Maintaining momentum
1. Identifying gaps in skills and access
A key point highlighted by the panel was the essential need for local authorities to look beyond traditional conceptions of the so-called “digitally excluded” population when identifying who needed assistance.
“We found it was more of an economic issue,” one attendee said of digital exclusion.
“We sometimes put digital inclusion in its own inclusion bracket, when actually it’s just part of a broader inclusion issue. If you struggle with reading or writing or paying bills, digital is just there on the list.”
“On issues relating to inequalities, Covid-19 really put those into sharp relief. Without these skills, people’s futures are definitely blighted,” another panellist said.
“It’s really important that we give people access to broadband, and they know how to use it.”
A third participant said of the ‘digitally excluded’: “People like to say that it’s not just the over-50s, but before Covid-19 that is what everyone thought it was.”
They added: “We found 25% of young people on an employment scheme didn’t have devices… It wasn’t just access to devices, but also data poverty.”
2. Best practice for upskilling
All participants in the roundtable hailed the impact of community hubs, such as libraries, in their efforts to equip residents with the tools to thrive online.
One said: “The jewel in [our council’s] crown are the libraries. They’re all Wi-Fi enabled, and the majority have ‘digital helpers’. Libraries are now genuinely community hubs.”
Others highlighted the role of partnerships – both with the private sector and with other public bodies. As one person said, “When tech works, it works really well. But it also takes an awful lot of collaboration and commitment – and creativity as well. It is hard work.”
Another added: “The thing that has been a real success has been partnerships, and dedication around this. We had a local tech firm set up our local tech aid [scheme] and tech recycling initiative. Our CCG is also really committed to this agenda.”
One council representative shared that they had enjoyed success by employing a flexible model of skills training – offering residents the choice of individual or class-based learning environments, as well as face-to-face walk-in sessions.
3. Maintaining momentum
Although the entire panel agreed that Covid represented a great leap forward in digital transformation, they also expressed the view that it was of vital importance to maintain this forward momentum over the coming years.
“We do need to move forward now on from the Covid experience. It’s hard to talk about positives from that time, but it was a positive.
“We need to maximise [tech] adoption now. We need to stop seeing digital as only for some niche services. When we talk about digital inclusion, I worry there’s a bit of preaching to the converted. It’s the same faces we see, and the same themes.”
Another attendee discussed the importance of tone and approach when working directly with residents to reduce digital exclusion. Councils must avoid “being paternal”, they said.
“We need to make sure our citizens are brought on a journey. That’s got to be something they want to do, that’s not something we’re forcing them to do.”
The challenges ahead
The nature of the role of the public sector means that the challenges it faces are infinitely complex and evolving.
Closing the digital skills gap won’t solve all of our problems overnight. But as this roundtable discussion clearly demonstrated, it will help improve services today, tomorrow and years into the future.
Digital infrastructure is something of an elephant in the room. The gains of recent years couldn’t have been won without first-rate connectivity networks – and yet there is much more to be done.
Enabling councils and other public sector bodies to communicate with residents, private sector partners and each other will be key going forward.
With thanks to our roundtable attendees:
- Councillor Glynis Phillips – Cabinet Member for Corporate Services, Oxfordshire County Council
- Ilgun Yusuf – Head of Birmingham Adult Education Service, Birmingham City Council
- Robert Ling – Assistant Director Technology, Change, and Customer Services, North Yorkshire County Council
- Cath Ritchie – Project Manager, Technology and Change, North Yorkshire County Council
- Lucy Lee – Head of Customer Service, Nottingham City Council
- Heather Clark – Head of External Funding and Digital Projects, City of Wolverhampton Council