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Developing Canada’s digital-ready public service: Attracting and retaining a highly skilled, diverse workforce to support the Government of Canada’s digital strategy

The federal public service has ambitious plans to develop a transformational digital platform that will support innovation; enable delivery of user-centered, customized, and accessible services; and increase transparency and accountability. Such a platform is critical for meeting the public’s expectations for efficient and effective government. To move toward information technology modernization, Canada’s public service must attract and retain world-class talent with the digital skills, experience, and mindset to drive this change. However, government is hamstrung by a skills gap. Not only does Canada suffer from a shortage of professionals with the skills government needs, but the people who possess digital skills are increasingly in demand in other sectors. The skills shortage is most acute in areas including artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, the Internet of Things, cloud-based development, and matching technology to the specific requirements of users. Virtually all industrial sectors are now increasingly reliant on technology, and demand for skills has increased more swiftly than supply. For decades, Canada’s public service has been an employer of choice, offering opportunities to serve, coupled with job security, benefits and career advancement. However, there are some issues that are limiting government’s ability to attract highly skilled candidates. While government offers a work environment that aligns with the aspirations of many young job seekers—particularly with respect to serving a social purpose—some aspects of bureaucracy are less appealing. The work environment is perceived by some to be hierarchical and slow moving, with limited opportunities for advancement compared to the private sector. Moreover, the federal public service’s complex rules and processes, including a lack of flexibility to negotiate compensation, put it at a disadvantage for attracting and retaining the best and brightest digital talent in a highly competitive market. While immigration has helped decrease the skills shortage in some sectors, public sector requirements and rules, such as the need for bilingualism, make it less easy to tap into this pool of workers. These issues are particularly vexing as they relate to the hiring of skilled women. Increasing the participation of women in digital roles advances the design and decision-making process and allows organizations to hire from a broader talent pool. The absence of diversity in general in the development of digital technologies has been shown to allow bias to be embedded into products and services. While senior roles in the federal public service have achieved something close to gender parity, women continue to be under-represented in technology roles. Most troubling is the significant decline in the percentage of young women in technology roles due to a smaller pool of women pursuing education in engineering, paired with an increase of demand for women talent by the private sector. So, what can be done to narrow this gap and attract a skilled and diverse workforce? An integrated strategy should include the following: 1. Demonstrate the political will to build a digitally ready public service Government must communicate the importance of talent and inclusion, and why the public service is a great place to work. 2. Benchmark and develop accountability mechanisms Apply accountability mechanisms, including measurable targets (which are distinct from quotas) and regular reporting, to set goals and track progress on the recruitment, development and advancement of digital talent. 3. Build a digitally ready and inclusive organizational culture The federal public service’s organizational culture must support building workplaces that are stimulating, rewarding, welcoming, inclusive, and provide access to state-of-the art tools to attract digitally ready talent. 4. Modernize human resources and hiring practices Core skills—especially in analytics, user experience, and artificial intelligence—are shifting away from “code warriors” and toward people who understand how to drive change enabled by technology. Government must update job classifications to reflect current skill needs and apply a critical lens through every stage of human resource processes. 5. Commit to new approaches to training While engineering and computer science remain important disciplines, for many jobs the foundation can be laid through a variety of roles to which the requisite technology skills can be added. New approaches to training offer alternative pathways to digital roles, support upskilling existing talent, and build on assets such as “soft skills” or sector knowledge. 6. Apply a gender and diversity lens across the value chain Progressive, high-performing organizations value diverse perspectives at every level. New tools, such as Gender Based Analysis Plus, inclusive design tools, and the Diversity Institute’s Diversity Assessment Tool, provide systematic approaches to open up the possibility of new approaches to “mainstream” inclusion. 7. Build public-private partnerships Collaborations with the private sector, post-secondary institutions, and non-governmental organizations can provide access to talent, new ideas, and innovative approaches. 8. Rebrand, market and promote government service The federal public service needs to build the skills pipeline by better communicating, through multiple channels, the challenges and rewards of a career—or even a stint—in government. Canada’s public service has charted ambitious goals and a bold path enabled by technology. It needs an equally bold strategy to attract diverse talent, particularly women, who can help it get there.