The word ‘digital’ can be unhelpful or even misleading if it is not explained carefully. It is a widely used but often a poorly defined term.

At the same time, it’s a term that local government needs to get to grips with – and not just those who are perceived to be working in ‘digital’ or technology roles, but across the workforce.

The Eduserv Executive Briefing Programme’s latest analysis is about skills in local government, and how these skills need to evolve if councils are able to take full advantage of the opportunity of digital business models.

As part of this work, Jos Creese and I recently facilitated a workshop at the PPMA (Public Service People Manager’s Association) Conference. We split the room into teams; each were asked to assess the key digital skills required and barriers to development of these skills, and recommend actions for HR leaders to prioritise for different stakeholder groups: the workforce in general, politicians, HR professionals, CMT and citizens.

Understanding digital

Quite quickly it was evident that the HR/OD professionals in the room feel into two distinct groups – those who ‘got’ digital and those who did not. Take, for example, a discussion about politicians – the team’s discussions focused on technical competencies such as using iPads, understanding social media and virtual meeting skills. Not to say that these skills don’t play a part, but technical skills are far less important that understanding the bigger picture of how digital can be applied to the benefit of the community. What local government needs is advocacy for digital at the political level and understanding that digital is more than ‘channel shift’.

In contrast the team who addresses the skills requirements of the workforce in general really got to grips with the bigger picture of digital, and how it can help to change the focus to the customer need rather than organisational need. There is a change of mind-set required, and staff should be involved in designing services that will allow citizens to help themselves.

When submitting their feedback the team ‘apologised’ that the skills they had identified were not ‘really technical’ – but that’s the whole point. To quote one of our report contributors:

“Digital is about applying a different style of thinking and working. The technology supports a different way of working, but it’s not about the technology itself.”
Dilys Wynn, former Director, People Services, Gloucestershire County Council

The actions that this team identified to build skills in the workforce in general were to:

  1. Define ‘digital’ for employees by starting the conversation about customer focus
  2. Be open in addressing fears such as restructuring and job losses
  3. Rethink learning and development around digital expectations, not just skills but also attitudes and behaviours
  4. Review workforce policies in HR if they are counter to digital operation

The wider workforce will also need some practical technical skills, but as the research has shown, attaining these skills comes down to attitude more than anything else. The important part is that all staff need to feel involved and responsible for digital – it’s not someone else’s job to ‘do digital’.

The role of HR professionals

The analysis of the team that looked at their own skills – those of HR professionals – was also really interesting. This team were brave enough to address head on the fear that HR professionals have to change, and the fear that they might lose control or status.

There is also concern from HR that the ‘people’ aspects of their role may be degraded with a dominance of digital. In practice, HR needs to do more to embrace IT and digital working, preserving the importance of people in the process of this inevitable change.

HR professionals need to be involved from the start in transformation programmes, because they understand how to design organisations. The strategies, policies, processes and technology (etc.) that HR professionals put in place will shape the culture of the organisations, and it is culture that defines digital change more than technology.


The co-produced report ‘Skills for digital change’ from the Eduserv Executive Briefing Programme and PPMA is now available to download. It brings together a combination of insight from roundtable events with councils, expert witness interviews and a detailed survey of HR and other professionals in the sector.

About the author

Natasha Veenendaal

Natasha runs Eduserv's Local Government Executive Briefing programme. Working closely with Jos Creese, Principal Analyst, and the steering group of senior local government leaders, she aims to increase sector-wide understanding of the benefits of cloud computing and broader digital initiatives. This includes working on research reports, conducting interviews, putting together events and engaging with industry figures at events and through social media. Before Eduserv, she spent 14 years working for international publishing and events businesses. First in the financial sector with 9 years at Euromoney, including a two year secondment in Hong Kong, and more recently 5 years in digital, delivering conference agendas on topics such as app development, enterprise mobility, cloud, and digital marketing.

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