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Skills and work in the emerging digital public service

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About the project

The digital era offers many opportunities while presenting new and growing challenges. Governments are focused on preparing their citizens and industries for the coming digital future. Yet are governments themselves—and the public service that supports them—prepared for the looming changes? This scoping review draws on Canadian and international evidence to identify how the digital era is changing the operations, functions and environment of public sector governing, and how those changes are translating into specific skill and capacity requirements in the public sector. Public service leaders are grappling with the challenges of building a digital-ready public service, focused on:

  • improving the performance of public administration and policy-making functions using digital tools and methods
  • strengthening understanding of the new landscape for public sector management that is changing as a consequence of advancing technology and social disruption
  • responding to how the adoption of technology throughout society raises new regulatory, policy and governance expectations on the part of citizens and stakeholders

Based on an assessment of these changing circumstances and needs, we look at whether the range of education, training and career development offerings in digital tools and approaches for established and aspiring public servants in Canada is keeping pace with and responding to those evolving needs. We also look at whether these offerings provide a foundation for promoting collaboration amongst Canada’s higher education system, public sector employers, private firms, civil society organizations, current public servants and students (as future public servants) to build these capacities.

Key findings

Each of the included articles was assigned to a category or domain area, with a narrative literature summary highlighting four themes and multiple subthemes:

  • Changing Government/Governance in the Digital Era addresses how public sector workplaces, practices and processes are changing because of advances in the digital era. Several articles argue that the digital era makes it imperative that governments adapt to the changing context and opportunities. Others note that technological change has direct impacts on how the public service carries out its work, what the future public service might look like and what is possible in public sector governance. Some authors emphasize that digital era responses are not necessarily centred on the adoption of technology but rather require a commensurate emphasis on “soft skills.” And one category of articles focuses on the need to identify and develop new public sector competencies for digital era governance.
  • Professional Response to Digital Change covers how individual public servants and public sector bureaucracies adapt or respond to these changes by revising and updating knowledge, skillsets and competencies. As the world of the public servant is changing, the ways in which individual public servants and whole organizations respond is changing also. Another sub-set of articles identified the challenges that stand in the way of successful adoption of digital solutions.
  • Technology for Teaching takes note of how individual instructors and organizations, whether within government or in formal educational institutions, use technological advances of the digital era to improve teaching efforts in ways that align with emerging public sector practices and needs. Sub-themes in this category describe perceptions on e-teaching (e.g., effectiveness, usefulness) from both learner and instructor perspectives, factors that improve effectiveness in teaching with technology, and tools for improved teaching and training.
  • Training and Teaching Digital / E-Gov assesses how individuals and organizations, both in government and in educational institutions, adapt the content and focus of teaching and training to better align curriculum and skill development with the changing nature of the public service in the digital era. Sub-themes include the training needs of public service professionals; assessments of university curricula and designs for new approaches; measures of whether curricula are aligned with workforce needs; descriptions of innovations in teaching and training; efforts to link digital methods with traditional public service values; ways in which digital training has had an impact on government performance; and a critique of the emphasis on digital learning and training.

Policy implications

  • Additional assessment of current and future public sector workforce competencies is needed. The first two themes in our review centred on the changing nature of government and governance in the digital era, and the tentative ways in which the public sector and public servants have responded to these changes. The dynamic and rapidly changing nature of the movement towards a truly digital governance era means that more work must be done to understand what the digital era means for public sector governance.
  • Ongoing assessment and building of capacity in the higher education system and government training programs to help build these competencies is needed. The final two themes in our narrative literature review centred on how individual instructors and organizations use technological advances to improve teaching efforts in ways that align with emerging public sector practices and needs, and how individuals and organizations adapt the content and focus of teaching and training to better align curriculum and skill development with the changing nature of the public service in the digital era. Yet as most of this literature points towards a lack of alignment and deficiencies in training and teaching capacity, much more remains to be done.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Justin Longo, Associate Professor, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina:

Elizabeth Oluwatosin Olaniyi, PhD candidate, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina:

Evert Lindquist, Professor, School of Administration, University of Victoria:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, the Future Skills Centre or the Government of Canada.

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