Blog Post

August 24, 2023

Beyond just upskilling: How can data literacy unlock innovation across the public sector?

Earlier this summer, PUBLIC’s Director of Data & AI, Thomas Chalk, and Director of Learning and Workforce Transformation, Elina Lam-Gall, were invited to join Tom Pieroni, Senior Trainer & Learning Manager at the Open Data Institute (ODI), to discuss data literacy in the public sector as a part of the iTalk Series hosted by EU DIGIT. ‍

The session aimed to uncover the extent to which government agencies are effectively using data to enhance their daily operations. Given the European Commission has declared 2023 as the European Year of Skills, this is an opportune time for the iTalk series to delve into the industry to assess the competence of public sector entities in storing, distributing and handling data. Understanding the essence of data literacy and its optimal implementation is crucial to driving meaningful change and action across the workforce and organisation as a whole. 

In today’s landscape, data has become the linchpin for effective decision-making and policy formulation. For government agencies, insights derived from data play an indispensable role in shaping public policies, enhancing public services, and optimising resource allocation. 

Nevertheless, the true potential of data can only be fully realised when agencies and their personnel possess data literacy skills. In this blog post, we will dive into the importance of data literacy for government agencies and explore areas where competency gaps exist, along with the strategies to eliminate them. 

How do we define data literacy?

The practical application of data literacy entails applying proficient knowledge and skills to understand, analyse and communicate with data more effectively. In a public sector context, it involves using data in real-world scenarios to make informed decisions that address the challenges faced by civil servants on a daily basis. 

When government agencies are equipped with data literacy, they can rely on data-backed evidence to design and implement policies that have a higher likelihood of achieving their intended outcomes. Ensuring that policy makers are fortifying their decision making processes with data-driven insights will allow agencies to foster more well rounded conclusions. It stands as even more of a priority because agencies often handle sensitive materials that raise data governance concerns to the relevant workforces using it. Practitioners need to  be aware of the importance of protecting sensitive data and using it responsibly.

Becoming data literate isn’t an individual responsibility; it also involves working collaboratively with others to leverage data effectively. This, for example, will often include sharing data insights and collaborating with other practitioners on data projects. PUBLIC’s learning and workforce  specialists have built an ecosystem of partners and expert faculty to design and deliver innovation labs, accelerator programmes and learning initiatives. Being aligned with a global network of mentors, founders and government leaders allows us to work at the forefront of innovation, user centred design and tangible workforce transformation 

Elina Lam-Gall spoke to the importance of a people-centred approach for data training, with more of a focus on how everyone can understand, interpret and use data to rapidly solve problems and deliver impactful solutions. Elina highlighted that organisations need to identify and build a tiered pathway approach for developing a data capable organisation. A universal operating standard for data literacy; a specialist pathway for those who need to interact with more complex data more frequently; and a strategic leadership approach for those who must enable the conditions for success in data transformation across the whole organisation.

Insights from the Data Literacy talk

To kick-off the discussion, the speakers presented a visual depiction of key areas where data skills and data analysis are essential. Through the lens of the Data Skills Framework developed by the ODI, the group’s discussion focused on several pivotal domains: 

  1. Introducing data: This entails fostering  a data-driven culture where the collection, analysis and utilisation of data  are recognised as valuable assets for informed decision-making  among the workforce. Equipping employees with the necessary knowledge and tools to effectively analyse and interpret data can facilitate improvements and organisational goals. 
  1. Innovating with data: Data literacy empowers government agencies to make informed decisions rooted in data-driven acumen. By comprehending how to interpret data, officials can better discern trends, patterns, and correlations, leading to more effective policies and targeted interventions.
  1. Leading change with data: Data-driven policymaking champions evidence-based decision-making. When government agencies are equipped with data literacy, they can rely on data-backed evidence to design and execute  policies with a higher likelihood of achieving desired outcomes.

By providing training and resources to government employees, agencies can ensure they are better prepared to serve citizens who may be less tech-savvy or have limited access to digital resources. Yet, too often organisations fall short in upskilling the civil servants who interact with these datasets regularly, underscoring the persistent need for training and learning programmes. 

In the talk, Thomas and Elina outlined their commitment to facilitating better integration of data-driven decision-making processes for all organisations who are prioritising this approach but are unsure of how to upskill their workforce. Thomas suggested that the most fundamental way to initiate transformative change within the public sector workforce is by using a discovery-based approach to facilitate the development of multi-tiered pathways. This initial discovery provides an understanding of the current state of competency across the organisation, and encompasses the development of a minimum standard for data infrastructure, personnel, tools, processes, and the organisation as a whole. 

In the latter part of the discussion, Thomas outlined key avenues for establishing and sustaining data literacy. These insights involve delineating clear objectives, offering actionable opportunities and establishing continuous feedback loops 

What are some of the obstacles we face?

The challenges associated with implementing these crucial skills can vary across different organisations, stemming from a range of reasons for any deficiency in data proficiency.

Elina explained that there is often a disconnect between data upskilling initiatives and how the workforce needs to use data to solve problems in context. To ensure data training doesn’t become a ‘tick box’ exercise, leaders must ensure that it delivers the data capabilities required to deliver organisational goals.

One recurring problem can also be the resistance to change within the workforce structure. In the talk, Tom referenced a study conducted by the European Data Science Academy in partnership with the ODI that revealed that managers tend to be more optimistic about the implementation of new data tools in the workplace compared to their employees. The evidence highlights where employees typically find it more challenging to adapt to this shift, with resistance stemming from various factors such as a preference for traditional work methods, a gap in technical skills, or bureaucratic hurdles that elongate and complicate the process. 

Addressing these very challenges sits at the heart of PUBLIC’s Learning and Workforce Transformation team’s work, through our targeted leadership training focused on driving strategic organisational change around digital transformation and innovation. With the capacity to facilitate targeted digital upskilling for specific capability areas we have been able to create an integrated offer across all of our domains.

Some government employees may lack the technical skills necessary to work with data effectively. Data analysis, data visualisation, and other data-related skills may not be prevalent among the existing workforces. We can, however, also see that government leaders may not fully grasp the benefits of data literacy or the impact it can have on successful productivity. With this lack of awareness, more effective policies and improved public services cease to exist. Training employees and investing in data data infrastructure can only begin when senior staff have realised its significance. 

Further challenges arise when taking budget constraints into consideration. Limited resources can hinder the implementation of data literacy programs and keep competency levels at a standstill because of it. Public sector bodies may not realise that they can work in partnership with non-profit and international development agencies to secure the sufficient funding for these initiatives. 

A matter of when, not if

Data literacy stands as an imperative for modern government agencies. It stands to empower public servants to make data-driven decisions, improve the overall provision of public services, and embed accountability throughout organisations. By investing in data literacy, governments lay a solid  foundation for effective governance, ensuring that data literacy becomes a catalyst for positive change and better outcomes for all. As data continues to shape the world around us, embracing this as a priority area is no longer an option but a necessity for organisations to thrive in the digital era. 

You can watch the full talk by following the link here!


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Photo by the author

Elina Lam-Gall

Former Team Member

Photo by the author

Thomas Chalk

Former Team Member

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