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Agency Operations

Importance of data proficiency among government employees

Allyson Brunette  Workplace Consultant

· 5 minute read

Allyson Brunette  Workplace Consultant

· 5 minute read

In today’s labor market, government agencies have to decide if they want to train in data proficiency or seek to recruit talent that already has the training and skills needed

Government agencies are taking steps to train their workforce internally in data proficiency. Yet, in an evolving labor market, this brings up the question: Is training for skills now the responsibility of agencies themselves rather than a skill that can reliably be found among applicants?

As public sector agencies adopt data-driven decision-making to enhance their service delivery and further their agency mission, there is a critical need to increase baseline data proficiency within the sector. Agencies inventorying employee competencies must first identify any skills gaps that may exist, and then navigate the triage process of whether to buy, borrow, or build their way toward a solution. This means that organizations can buy (pay candidates more to attract a higher skill level); borrow (rely on contracted service providers to fill needs); or build (increase the skill capacity of team members in-house through learning and development efforts), according to a 2022 report from Deloitte on the future of learning and development.

While in-house learning and development efforts focused on data proficiency may seem like a heavy lift for government organizations still navigating short-staffed teams in the post-pandemic environment, agencies at the federal, state, and municipal levels are increasingly opting to build. They are launching their own data academies to reskill their existing workforce. And while cybersecurity was the first frontier in agency-led, organization-wide training efforts of this nature, data literacy is the most recent focus area.

Data proficiency training in government organizations

Deloitte’s report stresses the importance of aligning learning with agency mission — recognizing the inherent human need to understand the why behind learning something new. Learning and development, especially when tied to promotion or career growth, is compelling for younger workers, study show. Indeed, 30% of respondents prioritize learning and development opportunities provided by their employers in job selection, according to the 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey from Deloitte.

Learning and development, particularly around data literacy, is shifting from a perk to an essential expectation at the time of employee on-boarding. In some cases, like in the City of Tempe, Arizona, data proficiency training is mandatory during employee on-boarding, while in others, such as the State of Indiana, employees are encouraged to complete coursework through a centralized learning service provider (the statewide Human Resources office) with the added incentive of digital badges being awarded for program completion. Regardless of the approach, training needs to be accessible and have a carrot associated with it.

The City of Baltimore’s Chief Digital Officer, Justin Elszasz, is responsible for the implementation of Mayor Brandon Scott’s vision of empowering all city employees to use data. Elszasz credits the city’s integration of the Baltimore City Data Academy training into their Workday learning software with increasing employee buy-in. This seamless integration makes data academy learning modules readily accessible, and perhaps more importantly, allows managers to directly see employee credentialing in learning and development training, which incentivizes participation as a pathway for promotion. At a federal level, the U.S. Department of Education has been similarly successful in implementing shared language around data proficiency across their entire organization, which has been translated into career maps.

Elszasz emphasized that data-driven decision-making relies on high-quality data, which often originates at the frontline level. A major outcome he envisioned stemming from the data academy was heightened awareness among frontline staff in how their data entry work directly influences data quality across the organization. Data visualization and using data in a participatory fashion among team members has been linked to enhanced service delivery. Both Baltimore and the City of Montevideo, Uruguay, actively participate in the Bloomberg City Data Alliance Program, a broad course that spanned the western hemisphere and was aimed at empowering cities in using data. In Montevideo, the efficiency of sanitation operations saw a substantial increase following the publication of a live waste collection map.

Designing an effective data proficiency curriculum

As previously mentioned, it is advisable for any organizations — but perhaps especially government agencies — to diagnose the scope of their data proficiency before implementing any curriculum-based solutions. Conducting an analysis to measure the baseline of an agency’s data proficiency is a logical starting point. Future forecasting can shed light on future organizational chart needs and associated skills gaps to recommend appropriate future training. Baltimore’s City Data Academy, for instance, directly shaped its approach through listening sessions with agency heads, focusing on their departmental needs and identified skills gaps.

Self-directed and self-paced learning opportunities have proven to be well-received by participants, particularly younger, digital natives. The City of San Francisco, in launching one of the first municipal-specific Data Academies, realized that their initial training offerings, limited to in-person sessions, could simply not keep pace with demand. By incorporating short classes (2 to 3 hours) and a hybrid content format (live teaching and recorded content) the city made the program more accessible.

Federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Treasury, have been successful with deploying their own pre-recorded, short learning modules. The U.S. Air Force, for example, has been particularly successful in increasing military data literacy efforts through learning applications that emphasize real-life problem solving, via their popular datathons.

As we’ve seen, government agencies are successfully empowering their workforce and bridging the digital literacy gap by accurately diagnosing their data proficiency skills gap, incentivizing participation at all levels of an organization, and designing flexible, self-paced learning curriculums. Hopefully, this work will continue to provide positive outcomes that improve government agencies’ service to the public.

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