Three ways the public sector can hire, train and retain skilled digital transformation teams

Written by Aesha Zafar, Head of Strategic Capability, DWP Digital

DWP Digital deliver services for the UK’s largest public service department, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). One of the largest government departments in the UK, DWP has more than 80,000 employees in 800-plus locations. It’s responsible for making $266 billion in payments each year.

DWP Digital is carrying out a large-scale digital transformation to improve our services and the way we interact with citizens, and we continue to evolve and digitize our organization. We faced a common challenge for public sector organizations: How to hire, train, and retain people with the skills to make better digital services. We learned three lessons in the process of reshaping our approach.


Clearly communicate the impact and value of public sector work

We took time to hone our message for digital roles. As a digital specialist, what does it mean to work for DWP Digital? How can we attract great people who may be offered a higher salary in a private sector organisation?

In our recruitment processes, we’ve put a lot of care into describing the kinds of projects that recruits will be involved with. We emphasise the unusual size and scale of the transformation they will be part of and why this creates opportunities to develop valuable new skills.

We’ve also learned that it’s vitally important to be clear about what the public sector offers in terms of non-financial benefits.

What sets us apart is the positive impact of our work on people’s lives. And while it’s important for some people to work for the greater good, we’re also aware that professional priorities can change at different stages of a career. Some might want to work flexibly or value an environment in which they’re appreciated for who they are. For others, the priority might be pension benefits.

Another important step was to review whether it was clear how to apply for a role in DWP Digital. To get the right people for the digital transformation, we had to transform our recruitment process. We did this by making job descriptions clearer, trialing new application methods, ensuring the end-to-end process had fewer steps, and prioritising candidate communications and engagement.


Recognise and train your existing workforce

In an organisation the size of DWP Digital, one of the most important changes we made was to map the skills and experience of our existing digital teams. We discovered uncaptured expertise when we introduced an online tool giving our colleagues the ability to simply log their skills, level of experience, and knowledge. It also makes all job roles and career paths in the organisation visible.

Colleagues can reflect on their careers, understand the different opportunities available, and create development plans. In turn, the organisation can understand colleagues’ ambitions and skill levels, influencing the decisions on training investment and recruiting new people.

Crucial to recruitment and retention is continuing to invest in colleagues in the long-term so people develop, and feel challenged and valued. It’s therefore a real priority for me to support the existing team with similar opportunities where possible as well as provide access to brilliant learning, qualifications, accreditation, and professional memberships.

As our digital transformation work goes beyond roles in coding or systems architecture, we need to raise skills across the board. We have formal training programs for colleagues who are less digitally savvy, so they have the skills and confidence they need.

We’ve also focused on our digital trainee and apprenticeship programs, and these new recruits have started to fill vacancies that had been open for a long time. These programs have created skills development opportunities for more experienced members of staff, who have stepped up to mentor and teach our apprentices.


Build a team that’s ready to adapt

When we set our people strategy, we horizon-scan. We work hard to anticipate our own needs and also consider relevant external trends. We now have succession plans for roles that didn’t exist a few years ago, for example.

But there will always be things we don’t know. Change is inevitable in government and technology, and it can be rapid. That’s why it’s so important to have colleagues and team members who understand that things might change, and who are happy to continuously adapt and learn. One of the most important questions I ask is: How do you respond and adapt to change?

It’s important to create an environment where everyone’s clear that things might change, but that you’ll provide the necessary support.

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