Latest Public Sector News

07.06.16

The value of diversity in the it workforce

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 16

PSE’s Rosemary Collins talks to Socitm’s new president, Geoff Connell, about the need for diversity in the sector’s IT workforce.

As Geoff Connell celebrates becoming president of Socitm, he thinks it’s time for local government IT managers to get out of the monitor room and into redesigning services. He also wants to encourage a massive drive in diversity. 

“You need to be an expert in security, data management, data exploitation, how we can use data to use the scarce resources that we have much more effectively,” he told PSE.  “For local government, IT managers are not just capable of coding and putting networks together. It’s about really getting involved in organisational redesign to transform the service delivery model. And that’s going to mean reskilling or changing the way that individual people are perceived in organisations in a lot of cases.” 

Women in IT 

However, the IT workforce won’t be better suited to its job, he stresses, until it’s more diverse. One of his top priorities as Socitm president is building on the work of his predecessor, Nadira Hussain, to get more women into IT. This is something that affects his own life: “I have a 16-year-old daughter who’s currently sitting her GCSEs and making decisions about A-levels. I think girls are given the impression, at school in particular, and perhaps also in society more generally, that coding and engineering are just for boys, and that’s the challenge that we need to overcome. Something that I’m working hard on is to help girls who might consider IT as a career, because they get put off somewhere along the line. 

“When girls are young, they like tech and gadgets as much as anybody. It’s more how it’s perceived. So part of my role, I think, is to help potential women coming into our sector and those that may stay or may leave to understand that it’s not just coding.

“There are a whole load of roles which might be generally considered to suit the softer skills more. There’s project management, there’s programme management, there’s the design, there’s the communications, there are so many roles in the IT service – look at the redesigners, look at the cultural change and change management.” 

He added that a large part of the work will be making people aware of what IT really is, but stressed the importance of getting the blend of age and gender right in the workforce. 

“When I started coding, if you put a full stop in the wrong place, you could have a thousand errors. Those days are gone,” said Connell. “Coding is a lot more about the ideas than it is about the specifics of the syntax, so I think it is evolving and I think it will continue to move in the right direction to make it more inclusive.” 

There has already been excellent progress in this area – Hussain launched the Women in IT (WIIT) campaign (prompting the joke ‘Where there’s a WIIT, there’s a way’) which established the Socitm Leadership Academy ‘Empowering Women in a Digital World’ programme to provide workshops, coaching and mentoring for aspiring women IT leaders in the public and private sectors. Graduates of the programme from across England and Scotland were presented with their certificates at Connell’s presidential dinner. 

Now he wants to “continue that and support that rather than it being for one year only and stopping, and then add other elements of diversity into that”. 

girls looking at tablet pc

Local diversity 

Connell has worked for Newham Borough Council since 2001, and is currently head of IT at oneSource, the joint committee shared service set up by Newham and Havering authorities. At Newham, he says, 60-70% of the staff come from the local community. 

“I think that’s really positive,” he said. “It means that along with developing solutions you understand the context, the needs of a lot of the residents that are going to consume the systems. So I do think people with disabilities, people with different ethnicities are very important to have in the mix as well. If you’ve got a management team that’s reasonably well balanced, it’s just helpful to look at things in different ways, particularly ways that reflect the needs of our customers.” 

Apprentice opportunities 

Another area where he’s keen to increase diversity is age, with a greater focus on youth and trainees. The government is currently in the process of trying to boost apprentice numbers, with a levy to create three million more apprenticeships and a target to make 2.3% of the workforce in public sector bodies apprentices by the end of the decade. The cost of the initiatives for councils has been estimated at £600m, but Connell argues that despite the opposition they have generated, they should be embraced, and can even help councils make desperately needed efficiency savings. 

“If the government is going to make us pay money for apprentices,” he says, “now, more than ever, it makes sense to use apprentices, especially in the IT sector, where skill shortages are increasing. We’ve got to cut our costs, and one of those areas is to stop trying to chase a limited pool of expensive and experienced talent and to grow our own, and the fact that the apprentices come at a low cost originally is good. It means we can take more risks and give more people opportunities. But also it’s fantastic, as a local authority, something that has responsibility for helping to develop jobs, to give youth an opportunity to get themselves on the career ladder.” 

He adds that getting apprentices into the workplace also provides “a skillset for some of the more mature staff that wouldn’t previously have been appreciated. It’s their ability to nurture or to coach, to be a role model, because part of the job isn’t the technical bit, it’s just helping young people to understand how they need to act professionally in an office and a working environment”. 

He’s trying to boost the benefits of apprenticeship programmes further by developing programmes which allow apprentices to work in both the local authority and with private sector vendors. “It will give people a really good development opportunity,” he said. 

“But it will also help the vendors to better understand our requirements as their customers, and the people who procure these services to better understand what the vendor can do for us, and how we procure in ways that make their life easier to respond or less costly.” 

Overall, Connell said he is looking forward to tackling the challenges facing the sector: “In terms of the challenge on the local government IT manager skillset, it’s probably the toughest time there’s ever been. But because there’s the opportunity to make a difference, it’s the most interesting, fulfilling time as well.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

 

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