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Tech & Digitalisation

Digital Skills: The “Missing Middle” in Technology Transformation


Commentary24th November 2023

For far too long, global progress has been slowed by unequal access to new technologies, innovation methodologies and funding. I saw this personally in my private-sector work building AI-enabled products and training programmes, and sharing stories about technology’s impact on people around the world. I’m now committed to designing interventions that minimise these access gaps for governments and their citizens through our digital-skills and inclusion work at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI).

Creating a future in which everyone can thrive requires focusing on the people and technologies that can make it happen. At TBI, we help political leaders turn vision into action. We focus on strategy, policy and delivery, with technology as the enabler, to enact meaningful change. However, we see a similar challenge, which I call the “missing middle”, across many of the governments we work with: leaders start with a strong strategic vision and delivery plan, only for a lack of skills to serve as a barrier to successful execution – and this is particularly true for digital skills.

The technological revolution unfolding now provides nations with a major opportunity to reimagine the state and how it serves citizens. It empowers countries – particularly emerging economies with fewer legacy systems – to leap ahead in every area of governance and societal wellbeing. Many leaders are adopting artificial intelligence (AI) in health care to make state-funded systems more sustainable and reduce response times for patients. Digital-identity systems are streamlining public services, offering improved access and convenience to anyone with a smartphone as they register births, file taxes or apply for grants. More governments are also adopting digital ways of working and using satellite technologies to manage the growing risks of climate change.

However, as governments design strategies and policies to deliver in the 21st century, they need the right technologies and skills to deploy material solutions. In turn, their citizens need the right skills and connectivity to access these solutions. Harnessing innovation to drive positive change isn’t just about building awareness of the newest technologies to deliver services, it’s about engaging digital leadership as a foundation for decision-making.

Research has shown that digital-skills gaps constitute a major constraint when it comes to planning and delivering transformation programmes – an issue that can pose significant risk. For example, a report published in September by a UK parliamentary committee found that the number of digital, data and technology professionals in the civil service is around 4.5 per cent, less than half of the figure in the private sector. This number falls significantly in less wealthy nations. If government services deteriorate as skill levels stagnate, it will be society’s most vulnerable people, those most dependent on government services and impacted by policies, who are worst affected.

To address this challenge, earlier this year we launched the TBI Digital Academy, which provides a dynamic, hybrid curriculum aimed at upskilling public servants in Senegal, Malawi and Ghana. The programme, launched in partnership with Panoply Digital, was designed with and for governments. It covers topics ranging from foundational digital skills for productivity and communication to innovations in AI for digital transformation. By the end of our programme, civil servants across all levels have developed an understanding of how digital technologies can help governments operate more quickly, cheaply and smartly – and ultimately help more citizens.

Our commitment to public-servant upskilling is unique and, we believe, vital for the large-scale impact it will have. Six months after our first class, we have seen hundreds of digital pioneers graduate across West and East Africa. They are now putting the insights they have gained into action to improve national outcomes in health care, agriculture, the digital economy and more (and you can hear directly from our participants here).

Applied learning is at the core of what we do. TBI Digital Academy participants work with their departments and embedded TBI advisors to design research projects relevant to their line of work. These projects have included digitising payments to improve financial inclusion, designing health-management tools and government chatbots, and creating civil-service-digitalisation plans. At our masterclass in Rwanda, participants had an opportunity to collaborate further across ministries, departments and countries, as well as learn from best-in-class local innovation ecosystems.

Our engagement with participants doesn’t end when the programme finishes. Public-servant communities that have been built over the past six months continue to grow, and projects are being implemented with support from TBI’s advisors and partner network.

Partnerships are core to our transformation work with world leaders, and digital capacity building is no exception. Just as we’ve partnered with Starlink and Oracle to co-design custom technology solutions for governments, we are collaborating with many more changemakers to bring the most relevant knowledge and tools to help governments reimagine their state’s capacity to help the citizens they serve.

Every day I’m amazed at the impact that TBI has been able to drive through its high-level partnerships with government and industry leaders. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to further expand our work in digital skills and inclusion, not only to enhance government performance and innovation for the benefit of citizens but to contribute to inclusive talent ecosystems and equitably expand skills-building opportunities to more citizens and governments around the world.

The impact of the TBI Digital Academy is already being felt – but its work is just beginning. We are excited to engage even more technology partners, innovators and organisations who are passionate about helping governments and their citizens flourish through the provision of digital skills and education. Technology offers governments a chance to rethink the way they serve their nation – and the only way to get there is to address the digital-skills gap.

Are you building products or training programmes that benefit civil society? Get in touch to learn more about our solutions for governments on digital skills and inclusion: DigitalAcademy@institute.global

For more on how digital skills empower governments to transform societies, watch our video.

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