With private sector demand and salaries for tech skills on the rise, how can governments attract digital talent to their units?

Two of the world’s leading digital governments – Australia and Estonia – have taken very different approaches to recruiting tech staff.

“We compete on the basis of what we do,” Paul Shetler, CEO of Australia’s Digital Transformation Office, said in a panel discussion at Innovation Labs World. The unit attracts people by offering meaningful work and a chance to make a difference to people’s lives.

“If they want to do something that will affect everybody’s life in Australia, so that they can show to everybody what they’ve done, [the DTO] is a great place to be,” Shetler said.

“People always keep on saying ‘I want to make a difference’,” he added. “They had reached a certain point in their lives where they wanted to do that. And we enabled them to do so.”

If the work of a particular department is not inherently attractive, Shetler’s advice is to make the department look good by hiring the best people to that department. The government may need to loosen their pay bands to lure people into these departments, he added.

Meanwhile, Estonia has largely chosen not to compete with the private sector on digital skills. “There is no trick. We don’t get them in,” Siim Sikkut, Digital Advisor to the Estonian Prime Minister, said.

The country has 1.3 million people and a big tech startup culture. “This has been one of the reasons that we have had to work around it,” Sikkut said. The government has been “working with the tech community, the startups, [and] the established companies in the market, and have them deliver stuff for us.”

“We do, of course, need some tech folks,” he added. “What we buy in is actual development, the design of things. We try to keep everything else before in-house, especially the architecture,” he said.

For this, “actually having the vibrant tech scene has helped”, Sikkut said. Many private sector companies do not allow ex-employees to immediately work with their competitors. “They can’t work in the industry, if the person were to make an exit from the company. So we try to be there at the right time and lure them in,” he added.

Digital skills are also becoming more mobile across different governments in the 21st century. For instance, some of DTO’s first employees were Australians who had worked in the UK Government Digital Service.

“There’s a certain taxonomy of roles that is becoming pretty much standardised across the UK, New Zealand, United states,” Shetler said – like webops engineers, developers, user researchers and interaction designers.

“They’re well understood roles and they work in pretty well understood ways. And if you have those skills, it’s actually pretty easy to move from one [unit] to the other,” he added.

Innovation Labs World is a festival of public service innovation organised by GovInsider. It was held on 27 September in Singapore, with over 450 people attending from around the world.