Blog Post

November 24, 2023

Learning & Workforce Transformation at PUBLIC: Empowering Public Sector with the Skills to Foster Innovation 

‍In this edition of our Spotlight Series, we shine a light on Elina Lam-Gall, the driving force behind PUBLIC’s efforts in transforming how government officials learn and adapt to the digital world. Elina has led a number of unique initiatives designed to help civil servants gain essential digital skills and learn innovative ways of working to navigate the evolving digital landscape. Her work involves collaborating closely with government bodies, focusing on innovative strategies to bridge skill gaps and redefine training approaches. It’s all part of PUBLIC’s commitment to empowering officials for success in combating public sector challenges. 
Elina, as leader of a specialist team dedicated to upskilling senior civil servants for success in the digital age, could you shed light on the primary challenges faced by the public sector in effectively scaling digital skills across their workforce? How does this impact the government's ability to meet evolving demands in the digital landscape?

Absolutely, let’s explore two core challenges that can hamper progress within the public sector. When we think about broader innovation, procurement and adoption of new technologies, a crucial ingredient for success is the expertise and skills required to precisely identify the problem that needs to be solved - and indeed - if technology is or isn’t the solution. A problem driven, user-centred approach facilitates more effective procurement design, and ultimately the purchase of the right technology solution. Too often, we meet public servants who are incredibly frustrated with technology products that simply don’t serve their needs as a user. This pitfall can lead to over-reliance on external suppliers, resulting in lower returns on investment, reduced adoption rates, and dissatisfaction among end users - be they public servants or citizens. To better advocate for themselves, the services they deliver, and the citizens they serve, everybody who works in the public sector needs to have a better handle on problem driven, user-centred and iterative ways of working. There are already great examples of this happening across the public sector; now we need to scale these to ensure these types of capabilities become the norm.

This connects to my second point: training and adoption of these problem-driven, discovery learning, and user-centred approaches are vital to driving innovation and transformation. Whether we’re talking about a game changing technology, such as generative AI or upgrading existing systems or processes for greater efficiency and team collaboration, a holistic approach is essential. It comprises three critical components: empowering public servants to adopt and integrate new technologies to transform operations fundamentally; innovating underlying processes and structures to expedite adoption and integration with fewer blockers and fostering user-centred methodologies to ensure solutions work and are implemented effectively. Try to answer these questions: what is the problem we’re trying to solve? How are we collaborating with everyone impacted by this problem to break it down and to make sure we’ve understood it? How might technology help us? How is or isn’t it useful for this purpose? What’s the end-to-end journey of this idea and how are we going to get any given solution to the people who need it as rapidly and seamlessly as possible? And how will we make it as useful as possible for everyone who needs it? This type of discovery learner’s mindset serves as the cornerstone for successful innovation in overcoming public sector challenges while optimising acquired digital and data skills. 

PUBLIC has introduced some pioneering training programs targeting how we can combine creative problem solving and innovation, alongside digital and data skill development within government entities. Could you share an impactful example of where your team addressed a critical skill gap, effectively transforming the capabilities of a government department?

Sure. The way militaries operate is changing at lightning speed, thanks to new technologies. But it’s not simply about flashy new gadgets; it’s about empowering Defence people to think innovatively about the way they learn and operate. Take the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU), for example. They set out to make innovation second nature for everyone in Defence, empowering them with problem-driven, user-centred toolkits to increase the pace, success and adoption of innovative solutions. Since last year, we’ve been teaming up with the DIU to craft Innovation in Defence, a multi-tiered, pan-Defence innovation training programme. A critical foundation of our expertise in Defence innovation was built through our Percy Hobart Fellowship, a three-year programme of innovation training we designed and delivered for military personnel from the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and US Navy. This fellowship teaches the skills to navigate and integrate new technologies into Defence and accelerate transformation around the needs of end users through acquiring technology startup methodologies. From this strong foundation, we launched the first editions of Innovation Essentials and Innovation in Practice. The two bespoke courses immerse Ministry of Defence innovators in problem driven, user-centred design tools and methodologies, equipping them to identify problems in novel ways, ideate innovative solutions, before prototyping, testing and scaling them effectively. 

What has been the impact of Percy and these new innovation training courses? When participants graduate from these courses, they are equipped not just with new ways of tackling the knottiest challenges in their work, but crucially how they can do this within their Defence context. By collaborating very thoughtfully with our current learners, alumni and Defence colleagues from across the whole organisation, we continually evolve and iterate these courses to ensure they are rooted in and designed for them and their context. With a brilliant 97% recommendation rate, it’s clear that our courses are hitting the mark with the Ministry of Defence. We’re of the view that for our innovation learning programmes to meet the complex needs of the Defence context, then we’re certain it can offer significant value to other contexts. 

How does PUBLIC’s learning-oriented discovery service, as conducted for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), align with its broader approach to assessing learning needs and tailoring training solutions within government entities? 

At PUBLIC, we’re all about understanding how organisations can learn and innovate at ever increasing speeds. Our approach is like crafting a tailored suit - it’s all about creating the perfect fit for each department. We dive deep into current capabilities, the jobs an individual, team or organisation is trying to get done, the knotty problems they need to solve and what they’re looking for in a given training or workforce solution. This learner-centred and client-oriented approach enables us to design and deliver the absolute best learning and workforce solutions for them. Take, for example, our collaboration with the NPCC to conduct a first major evaluation of their National Cybercrime Training Programme, diving deep into the world of cybercrime policing personnel. We spent four weeks conducting in-depth user interviews and focus groups to grasp daily challenges of police working in cyber crime units across police forces in England and Wales, motivations, and where they might be encountering challenges when delivering tasks. We then teamed up with industry experts, weaving their insights together with our findings to complete a learning and capability gap analysis and evaluation report with recommendations to determine how the existing and future training programmes might be evolved. 

The goal isn’t just to highlight gaps; it’s about supporting public servants to make the changes they want to make, scale the things that are working well,  and to solve the most challenging public problems - we want to give them the capability batteries they need to to embrace the opportunities offered by new ways of working and emerging technologies. We’re also passionate about giving leaders a finger on the pulse as to where their teams stand, what they’re succeeding in and where they could be further trained to drive transformation that counts. This way, we tailor-make training programmes and workforce strategies that hit the nail on the head, addressing exactly what’s needed and how to make it actionable. It’s like giving each department a toolkit customised just for their unique learning needs, ensuring they’re geared up to level up and tackle their specific challenges.

PUBLIC designs all its learning programmes with the development of innovation and technology capabilities front and centre. How pivotal is the integration of innovative skills and new technologies within the strategic goals of government departments today? 

For us, transformation begins and ends with people. It’s not enough to just do ‘digital and data upskilling’ - we need to further ensure public servants know how to apply this new knowledge and skillset in their work; this is why human-centred innovation, problem solving and ideation training is critical. We equally need to create a ‘test and learn’, iterative way of working, where boundaried risk taking is enabled. To truly drive change and shape the strategic landscape within government departments and the broader public sector, integrating innovative skills and new technologies is paramount for two main reasons: these skills will further equip any public servant with the toolkit they need to deliver innovative solutions for any problem they are trying to solve in their work, no matter how big or small it is. Secondly, they will be able to both utilise, make sense of and embrace new technologies more readily in their work, and be more robustly equipped to not only iterate the way the way work, but to also collaborate with technology suppliers to ensure the products being purchased meet end-user requirements. This comes into sharper focus when crafting training programmes and workforce strategies that seamlessly align with broader technology and innovation objectives. At PUBLIC, our approach revolves around finely tailored, contextualised learning and workforce initiatives, meticulously designed to address explicit learner needs and the identified capability gaps unearthed through our extensive discovery processes.

Our commitment lies in embedding innovation and technology capabilities - such as user-centred design and problem driven innovation skills, alongside leadership skills that enable the workforce to maximise how they use these - deeply within the DNA of these departments. We’re not merely reacting to change; we’re proactively harnessing it with an eye firmly fixed on tomorrow, in order to create readiness for much more rapid adoption of innovative skills and new technologies. Take Large Language Models (LLMs), as an example. This in particular illustrates the need to not only understand what these technologies are, and can offer, but to develop effective training opportunities and a clear blueprint for how these should be used effectively and responsibly in public sector work. 

Collaborating closely with government entities, we co-create programmes that precisely address their distinct challenges. For instance, in partnership with the Local Government Association (LGA), our aim has been to support councils across the UK in enhancing cyber resilience to not only respond to threats but anticipates and efficiently mitigates them. Our training programmes and materials don’t just bridge existing gaps; they empower procurement and IT teams with a shared operating standard and best practices, fortifying their strategic objectives by embracing innovative approaches to address critical issues. We believe that It’s not about simply keeping pace with the evolving landscape, but rather to lead within it, actively solving problems and driving increased engagement to ensure our client organisations are not just prepared but pioneering. 

When it comes to empowering government departments with innovation capabilities, what benchmarks or measurable outcomes do you prioritise to gauge success?  How do you evaluate the effectiveness of skill development initiatives,  particularly in driving tangible transformation within the public sector?

I want to answer this initially with three further questions: what change do we want to see? What would it look like if someone was doing ‘X’ effectively in their jobs? And what would the effects be on our organisation if they were doing this? Similar to investment in new and useful technology solutions, effective investments in data and digital upskilling are welcomed. The opportunity and challenge this brings is how we ensure these investments pay dividends. In order to facilitate this, any organisation making these investments needs to be able to identify what success will look like at an individual, team and organisational level - being able to do this informs an initial set of impact metrics by which we can both measure progress and also learn and evolve as we go. Our goal is to not just design incredible and transformative learning programmes, but to firmly place the impact of knowledge and skill development at the centre of these efforts. We’re driven to measure outcomes that provide actionable insights for our learning designers to adapt and iterate, ensuring our programmes are tailored precisely to our clients’ needs and that they effectively deliver change at an individual, team and organisational level. 

Our approach to learning design is driven by the behaviours and practises our client organisations need and want to see. Through learning and workforce discovery, we collaborate closely with our clients to establish specific and measurable outcomes and select appropriate longitudinal approaches for evaluation. We then build learning experiences that incrementally build the knowledge required, and applied practice opportunities that ensure these outcomes are delivered. Beyond the training environment we can also work with our client organisations to identify any other ‘enabling levers’ that need to be pulled in order to ensure any learning is embedded within their work, such as performance development matrices, coaching or communities of practice, or the opportunities to actually use their training in their everyday jobs. This approach ensures our learning and workforce programmes translate into tangible impact, catalysing genuine transformation within government departments. 

PUBLIC's latest research initiative involves a free digital and innovation capabilities discovery to support government departments in identifying and addressing their workforce’s training needs for the upcoming year. Can you tell us more?

Our extensive work with various government sectors, including Defence, Local Government, and Police, has highlighted the critical necessity of accurately assessing innovation and technology capabilities; delivering targeted and impactful learning and workforce programmes and embedding innovation capabilities, so that we can innovate faster and much more rapidly embrace the opportunities that existing and emerging technologies offer. Looking forward, our aim is to offer our learning programmes and methodologies to a broader spectrum of public sector organisations and government departments. We’re eager to connect with new public sector and government partners to learn more about the trickiest problems they’re trying to solve, to collaborate with them to identify the most effective learning and workforce solutions to achieve this and to assist - in any way helpful - with strategic planning for 2024. 

If your department is seeking to invest in its workforce’s digital and innovation skills, we’re here to facilitate this process and ensure your training needs align perfectly with your organisational goals. Feel free to reach out directly to me at to kickstart your journey towards a more agile, digitally adept workforce today.


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Photo by the author

Elina Lam-Gall

Former Team Member

Photo by the author

Natasha Wren

Head of Communications

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