How the UK Government can prepare for automation by upskilling its own workforce

January 29, 2020

by Rachel Taylor Economics and Business Affairs Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Email tel:+44 (0)7841 783 022

When Dominic Cummings recently called for Number 10 to hire “weirdos and misfits”, he acknowledged the need to cultivate a new generation of skills in government.

Cummings makes the case for a major recruitment drive, with technology and data skills featuring at the top of his wishlist. But there is also an opportunity for the government to build on the talents of its existing workforce, equipping them to deal with the challenges of automation.

Leading a national transformation

Our latest Future of Government paper, How we work, shows that as automation continues to transform the workplace, we need to upskill workers from every sector and region. But it also shows that, as a major employer, the government needs to take a lead by first upskilling its own workforce. In doing so, it will become a powerful role model by demonstrating the important role that upskilling can play in making society fairer.

Our research shows there is considerable appetite to upskill among the UK public. Only 11% of our survey respondents say they would not be prepared to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve future employability. And the government is already starting to use this enthusiasm to its advantage. The new Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) Profession Capability Framework has helped improve consistency across DDaT roles in government and enabled public sector workers to identify the skills they need to advance their careers. But if the government is to give its workforce a fair opportunity to keep up with the pace of change, initiatives will need to be bolder and more urgent.

Big lessons from smaller successes

The challenge of upskilling might seem daunting, but I’m confident the solutions exist. In some parts of the public sector, they are already being put into practice. In August 2019, the NHS invested £250 million in a new National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab, bringing together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges in healthcare. The AI Lab has committed to upskill the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks, allowing clinicians to spend more time with patients.

The government can use existing initiatives such as the AI Lab as a framework for its broader upskilling initiative, scaling up what works and learning from what doesn’t. This will allow it to set realistic but ambitious goals while gaining insight into common barriers to adoption and how to mitigate them. Similarly, at PwC, we’re taking the lessons we’ve learned through our own global upskilling initiative to our clients.

So, it might be that the “weirdos and misfits” Cummings refers to already exist within the public sector itself — they just haven’t yet been given the skills they need to flourish. While recruiting a host of bright young STEM graduates might seem like an attractive option, committing to a sector-wide upskilling initiative would be a more sustainable way to enhance productivity and future-proof the workforce.

It would also be a step towards making society fairer, giving people who might never have been encouraged to develop digital skills the opportunity to do so. And if the government can pull this off, it should encourage the private sector to follow suit.

by Rachel Taylor Economics and Business Affairs Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Email tel:+44 (0)7841 783 022