Soft skills increasingly valued in a tech-driven public sector #FOI2024

By Si Ying Thian

Developing human skills is the key to harnessing the benefits of tech and unlocking its transformative potential for the public sector, according to government and tertiary education leaders, who were speaking at the Festival of Innovation 2024.

Digital transformation is not just about harnessing technology, but having the human skills to adapt to new innovations.


This was the underlying message across two panels around attracting and retaining digital talent at this year’s GovInsider’s flagship event, Festival of Innovation (FOI), which happened in April in Singapore.


Where tech and AI (artificial intelligence) continue to disrupt industries and the workforce, government and tertiary education leaders pointed to the increasing importance of soft skills such as adaptability, problem solving, critical thinking and communication.


This also requires continuous development of new skills by employees to stay relevant.

Public sector's focus on lifetime employability


Civil service is widely perceived to be an “iron rice bowl” - implying guaranteed job security and lifetime employment.


This perception is evolving, said GovTech Singapore’s Senior Director of the People and Organisation Division, DN Prasad.

Digital transformation training has less to do with acquiring new digital skills, but honing human skills to enable organisational transformation. Image: GovInsider.

He added that GovTech has stated its commitment to focus its people strategy on lifetime employability (as opposed to employment), which implies lifetime honing of the knowledge and skills of workers.


He was moderating the Attracting Digital Champions to the Public Sector fireside chat at FOI.


Prasad's fellow panelist from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Francesco Mancini, said digital transformation has been a recurring topic of focus for the public sector in the training landscape. Prof Mancini is the Vice Dean (Executive Education) and Associate Professor at LKYSPP.


The institute runs more than 170 executive education programmes for governments around the world, he added.


The expectation from such trainings has less to do with acquiring new digital skills. Rather, it is focused more on honing the human skills to enable transformation within an organisation. This includes stakeholder management and contextual intelligence.

Upskilling is less about knowledge, more about application


Panelists from training providers, including Institute for Adult Learning Singapore (IAL), Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and NTUC LearningHub, highlighted that skills development is increasingly focused on skills applicability in the workplace.


They were speaking in the Talent Tango Panel: Digital Skills to Promote Digital Transformation Internally.

Tertiary education leaders from another panel highlighted that adult learnign is increasingly focused on skills applicability in the workplace Image: GovInsider.

“We spend a lot of time crafting the translation part, not just building the skills... and there’s a lot of follow-ups after the training to ensure an element of application,” said Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Chief Data Officer, Patrice Choong.


Both NTUC LearningHub’s Chief Skills Officer, Amos Tan, and IAL’s Innovation Centre Director, Associate Professor Sim Soo Kheng, noted that “marrying of skills, knowledge and problem solving” will be a key focus area.


Tan shared that there has been an increasing demand for Generative AI (GenAI) training courses within the past year. GenAI uses natural language - unlike other types of tech - and taps on different sets of skills.


The ability to frame problems and assess them is a key to using GenAI effectively and safely, say to ask the right questions and discern AI hallucinations, said Choong and Tan.


MyDIGITAL’s Director of Strategic Communications at Malaysia Centre4IR, Ellina Roslan, said the government has partnered with both tech providers and executive education providers to bridge the gaps in digital leadership.


It is not so much about creating digital experts, but equipping leaders with the skillsets and mindsets to ask the right questions when the IT guys come and presents certain technologies related to digital transformation, she said.

Private and public sector to align on incentives


There is currently a big revolution in our public policy school, said LKYSPP’s Prof Mancini.


“You would assume that public policy schools would produce graduates who go to the public sector. That’s not the case. Actually, the majority of them end up in the private sector,” he explained.


The question around aligning incentives between the public and private sector was discussed during the fireside chat.


Workplace flexibility and meaning of work are key factors to attract and retain workers, said Prof Mancini. However, the public sector tends to have a more regulated working environment, which can result in less flexibility.

GovTech Singapore's Prasad highlighted purpose of work - tech for public good - as one of the three key components defining his organisation's employee value proposition. Image: GovInsider.

While the public sector can claim the space of social impact, civil servants may still find it challenging to identify their individual contributions and end products when they are part of the bureaucracy, he added.


GovTech’s Prasad highlighted that purpose of work, which is tech for public good in the context of his organisation's work, is one of the three key components making up their employee value proposition.


The meaning of work was also highlighted by Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Philippines’ Jules Carl R. Celebrado, Gdip (astro), who is the Head and National Coordinator of the Brain and Mental Health R&D Programme.


During and after the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philippines government established innovation platforms to facilitate collaboration between public sector innovators, clinicians and academics to translate their ideas into something tangible.


“It gives them a purpose in joining [the profession] and helping the public,” he added.


Recognising the different strengths in private and public sectors, public sector HR leaders should start looking at how to tackle some of these gaps from an ecosystem perspective, and how each sector can learn from or adapt from each other, concluded GovTech’s Prasad.