Among the many consequences of COVID, one of the few welcome steps has been the rapid acceleration of digitalisation in public services. In a recent survey 81% of technology leaders across the private and public sector said COVID-19 has created the biggest technology pressure for their organisation that they have ever experienced.
From community microsites to online GP consultations, data sharing to creating single digital identities, local Governments of all levels are using that pressure to demonstrate how digital advances can build efficiencies and resilience in communities.
Some organisations will focus on the opportunity, while others lament what might be lost, but the fact remains: digital by default is happening. Leaders will be those who build organisations that can ride the wave.
Of course the engine of digital transformation are skilled employees who can use data and have the technical know-how to capitalise in new digital tools. This has exploded into one of the most competitive labour markets in the UK. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport there are 100,000 unfilled data roles in the UK right now. According to Kandidate, data science is the only area in UK startups where salary expectations are increasing.
In this market, councils are competing for talent directly alongside big tech and the rest of corporate Britain. Given the sensitivity of the data councils handle, and the impact their work has on communities, their need is even greater.
Can the traditional educational model of university supplemented by corporate training supply the skilled individuals the digital revolution needs? The evidence suggests not. HR managers report a high proportion of university graduates simply aren’t ready for work, while corporate training is more likely to be forgotten than implemented.
If there’s one thing that unites many of the most successful digital adopters, it’s that they’ve struck on the secret weapon: apprenticeships. No longer the preserve of manufacturing and traditional industry, the fastest growing apprenticeships in the country are in digital and tech.
The primary appeal of the apprenticeship route is that they equip employees with digital skills that are directly relevant to their roles. Delivering skills alongside a job, apprenticeship training sticks with a learner because it is tested and embedded through immediate application.
Since COVID struck Multiverse have used apprenticeships in councils like Barnet and Hackney, and across the NHS, to provide data literacy throughout their organisations, rather than siloing skills in small, already expert teams.
Apprenticeships can also generate huge opportunities for the local communities councils exist to serve. Lewisham LBC, for example, are using the apprenticeship levy to provide 100 apprenticeships in a hundred days across the council and local employers in an effort to tackle the spike in youth unemployment.
These councils ultimately benefit from a far more diverse talent pool, by looking beyond those who have spent three years at a university. Another long-term partner, Westminster City Council, have used apprenticeships to both recruit from within their local area, and accelerate the careers of talented people from communities that are underrepresented in senior management.
Finally, because the cost of training comes from the apprenticeship levy, they can be highly cost effective. While corporate training budgets have generally fallen across the public sector, Levy funding remains available for those organisations who find ways to align apprenticeship training to their strategic priorities.
Of course for many councils digital transformation is the biggest strategic priority of all. The choice facing many leaders will be whether to resource this challenge with external consulting teams or by developing internal expertise. The fact that most councils fail to spend their full levy allocation shows there is still enormous potential for growth in public sector apprenticeships.
2021 should not be the year that technological change happens around us or to us. By armed teams with the right skills, we can ensure that this year councils are agents for change.
Euan Blair is founder and CEO of Multiverse