Building a digitally savvy workforce

In this excerpt from "Delivering on Digital," William Eggers explores one agency's approach to expanding digital capacity by recruiting and training the team.

Delivering on Digital

"Delivering on Digital: The Innovators and Technologies That Are Transforming Government" was published by RosettaBooks. Copyright 2016 by William D. Eggers. Used by permission.

Suzanne Butler works in the U.K. Department for Work and Pension's Fraud, Error and Debt Division, where she manages an IT team. She's also the 100th student to graduate from the Digital Academy, DWP's innovative training endeavor.

The Digital Academy in Leeds, where Suzanne trained, is a lively space. It has the feel of a modern startup rather than a traditional government department. Rainbows of colored Post-it notes cover the walls as students brainstorm ideas and learn the secrets of creating an exceptional user experience. They sift through mountains of Lego blocks, building models and prototyping. The goal is learning how to work in an agile way.

Starting with the basics -- defining "digital" and the internet, creating a basic webpage, etc. -- cohorts of civil servants work their way toward understanding and practicing more complex aspects of digital tech and service delivery over a six-week course.

As well as technical expertise, academy graduates also take away large doses of digital culture -- working collaboratively in a flat, multidisciplinary team, for instance, and putting the customer at the heart of their work.

While she learned many digital tools and techniques, the most important thing Butler took away from the Digital Academy is customer focus.

"The customer is definitely at the heart of it," she says, "since everything that you're producing should be driven from the customer or the user. Almost as soon as you get into a discussion about what the customer wants, you know you need to take a step back and go out and do some user research."

She characterizes the academy as "busy and visually vibrant, with a different kind of buzz."

The Digital Academy is the brainchild of Kevin Cunnington, recruited from Vodafone to lead DWP's digital transformation. After almost three decades in IT and telecom, Cunnington says he was drawn to government by "the opportunity to do some good after spending most of my life in the commercial sector."

Passionate about open-water swimming, Cunnington loves challenges; choppy water at near-freezing temperatures is just one of them. It's the same drive that led him to join the DWP.

"For me, it's the challenge that really makes it compelling," he says. "The challenge and the scale of what we're trying to achieve."

Scale may be an understatement. With more than 85,000 employees, DWP delivers critical services including pensions and child care, disability, and ill-health benefits to more than 22 million customers each year. It pays out £166 billion annually, accounting for a third of all daily banking transactions in the UK.

But, unlike many transplants from the private sector, Cunnington isn't intimidated by the department's massive scale. "A lot of commercial organizations are bigger," he says. "They have exactly the same issues of bureaucracy and politicking that big government organizations have. The nice thing about DWP is it only operates in one country, in contrast to my past life at Vodafone."

Early on, Cunnington realized that DWP had severely underinvested in people and digital technology. It had a notable shortage of digital skills, including user research, user experience, analytics, content design and service architecture. And he couldn't afford to hire enough new digital talent in a reasonable time frame to create the widespread cultural change so sorely needed.

So Cunnington instead decided to embark on the massive challenge of building the department's digital capabilities from the ground up and the inside out. Borrowing from his private-sector work, he created a boot camp-style academy similar to one he'd established previously at Vodafone.

DWP's Digital Academy is designed to get staff members digital-ready, quickly and efficiently. Employees spend six weeks at one of two Digital Academy locations, in Fulham or Leeds, training on key elements such as user-centric design, agile development and digital government services. They learn wireframing, paper prototyping, agile project management, design thinking, coding and more. At the end of six weeks, they're shipped back and given a chance to work on actual projects.

And no, six weeks of training doesn't mean these freshly minted academy graduates can hit the ground running and manage digital programs.

"What you get in six or eight weeks is not going to get you to where you can drop in and lead some of these programs, where we're trying to deliver complex, world-class solutions in a very short space of time," says Rick Stock, the academy's former program director.

Instead, Cunnington and Stock created what they call the "plumber's mate" model, in which graduates will know enough to contribute to a team but not necessarily to lead a project or work independently. From there, they can learn as apprentices until they are ready to strike out on their own.

Stock, known as "Ponytail Rick" because of his long mane of brown hair, designed the academy's curriculum with the help of a few colleagues. Having invested about 10 hours of development time for every hour of training content, he proudly says, "We are the academy -- it runs through our veins."

Stock had no prior experience as a formal trainer but says spending 15 years in digital industries proved critical to this challenge. "The handy thing was having had quite a broad experience during that time," he says. "I had a lot of contacts we could bring in."

What really distinguishes the Digital Academy from traditional training models is that it's targeted directly to the kinds of digital roles people are actually seeking, from service architects to user-experience designers to digital product owners. That focus helps graduates learn and speak the same language as experts in their roles.

"They'd come back and say to me, 'Well, we thought we were going to be lost but because of what we learned in the first four weeks, we could sit in a scrum meeting or in a product meeting, and we knew exactly what was going on,'" Stock says. "That was really a lightbulb moment."

Another critical feature of the Digital Academy has been its focus on learning by working on live projects. Co-located with the Leeds Academy is one of DWP's digital transformation hubs, which houses teams working on live projects, some of them including academy students and graduates.

"What we're saying now is, 'Okay, if you're coming through the academy, you've got to have a place to go at the end of it,'" Stock says. "Often, it's one of the projects that are running in the hub. You've got a pipeline effect there."

So far, the Digital Academy has delivered promising results. "This year, we trained up about a thousand people, roughly. Next year's target is 9,000," Cunnington says.

By any measure, six weeks is a long time to pull productive employees away from their daily jobs. Cunnington admits it hasn't always been easy, but "you have to determine what's important and provide the executive support to get on with it," he says.

Ultimately, the goal is not to just focus on hubs and academies, but transforming the whole of DWP. With the philosophy "transformation is a team sport," the DWP is working to achieve the delivery capacity it needs by both building skills within the department and also recruiting into the transformation hubs.

"All organizations are looking to attract the same talent, so our brand has to be attractive to those people," notes Andrew Besford, head of business design at DWP. "At the moment, the recruitment process could be improved, and once we get people through the door, we need to genuinely empower people and not just pay lip service to empowerment, leaving people tied up in governance loops," he adds.

DWP plans to work with local universities to get people with the right skills to work on digital services.

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