Future-proofing the public sector through digital and innovation skills training

Upskilling the government workforce: a case study from Germany’s Digital Academy

This article by Beth Simone Noveck and Jason Williams-Bellamy was originally published via Apolitical

  • The problem: Technological developments and ways of working — such as artificial intelligence, big data, remote collaboration and agile methodologies — are changing the world as we know it and public servants are at risk of falling behind.
  • Why it matters: Innovation and digital skills are fast becoming essential in a technology-driven world.
  • The solution: Government-wide skills training to prepare the workforce for a technology-driven 21st century.

This installment in our series on training 21st century leaders highlights how Germany’s new Digital Academy (Digitalakademie) endeavors to incorporate many of the best practices associated with innovation skills training and may fast become a global leader in giving civil servants the skills they need for a technology-driven and uncertain 21st-century environment.

In late May 2021, the German Federal Academy for Public Administration (BAköV) launched its new Digital Academy, a free platform that offers online and offline courses for German federal employees to promote digital skills, support cultural change, and create networking.

The Academy is designed to prepare federal employees to adapt to an increasingly digital environment. The Academy is a commitment under the 2021 national Digital Plan, which calls for promoting digital skills in the public sector. Learning offerings are, according to Sebastian Gradinger, director of the Digital Academy, designed to upskill the public sector for future challenges by teaching both technical competencies like artificial intelligence and big data, and new ways of working enabled by new technology, such as agile project management, digital leadership, remote collaboration and teamwork and tech-enabled service delivery and policymaking.

A hybrid approach

The Academy follows the best practice of hybrid learning by including both a physical Berlin campus in the lively Kreuzberg neighbourhood and an online platform that offers courses, webinars, lectures, training and coaching. These mixed methods are intended to maximise accessibility and scalability for learning to enable a whole-of-government approach. While “Digital Journey” are week-long learning opportunities for the most senior leadership, other offerings are designed to be highly scalable and reach the entire public sector through the use of new technologies. The Academy promotes varied continuing education opportunities, including courses and coaching offline and online through video-based education, self-directed learning and self-assessments that are highly scalable and available for free across both the federal and state public sectors.

Online courses known as Learning Trips provide free access to introductions to digital skills and new technologies, including technology and AI ethics as well as sustainability and innovation in leadership, among other topics. Digital and technology experts support learning designed to advance digitisation activities.

Enabling a culture change

Rather than simply focusing on digital competences and technical skills, the Academy’s offerings are also designed to enable a culture change in the public sector necessary to advance digitisation. By teaching courses in ‘New Work’ — the ways in which digitisation will transform the workplace of tomorrow and teaching employees how to adapt at both an individual and institutional level to the inevitable changes coming to the workplace — the Academy is connecting skills to better ways of designing policies and services through changes in workplace practice.

In addition, NExtcamp is an opportunity to convene professionals in peer-to-peer learning environments to share experiences and opportunities and learn from each other how to work faster, more flexibly and in more human-centred ways in the digital environment. The Digital Academy seeks to foster cultural change through coaching and programs focused on digital cooperation, leadership skills, work-from-home strategies, and agile project management.

“the German Digital Academy represents one of the most forward-thinking and exciting experiments in public sector upskilling”

Flexible learning

While many of these plans are still in the offing and are being developed in the coming year, the Digital Academy embodies two key aspects of a good public sector innovation skills training program. First, its offerings are designed to meet people where they are, how they learn, and when they want to learn by providing flexible modalities of learning. Second, it offers a forward-thinking curriculum like ‘New Work’ supported by peer-to-peer learning and coaching rather than only disconnected lectures, in order to help public servants apply skills to their own work.

It remains to be seen how the Digital Academy will mature and develop and whether the initiative will succeed, first, in creating the incentives for public servants to upskill. Second, it is not yet known if and how the Academy will successfully combine digital, data-driven and human-centred approaches, although offerings like ‘New Work’ suggest the Academy does take a comprehensive approach that emphasises systems thinking. Finally, the Academy’s offerings are still new and evolving. Thus, there is no evidence yet of its impact and the outcomes of its programs in terms of changes in how the government delivers policies and services and the resulting downstream impact on real people’s lives. But, as it stands, the German Digital Academy represents one of the most forward-thinking and exciting experiments in public sector upskilling.

Special thanks to Dr. Sebastian Gradinger at Digitalakemie for his assistance with this piece.

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