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Civil Servant 2.0: Brainstorming with Southeast Asian experts on digital competencies for policymakers

Public entities use digital technologies to design and implement public policies, engage with citizens and improve the delivery of public services. However, to build an enabling environment for a just, inclusive, green digital transformation, and to face the challenges of digital era governance, civil servants require a new set of skills and competencies for the future.
Brainstorming on digital competencies

The UN Broadband Commission’s Working Group on AI Capacity Building is developing a Digital Competency Framework for Civil Servants through a series of global and multi-stakeholder consultations.

On 24 May 2022, UNESCO, Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) and Polylat Association organized a workshop in Southeast Asia to discuss AI and Digital Transformation Competencies needed by Civil Servants in the region.

“We want to set up an inclusive and comprehensive process to understand the future needs of the public sector,” said Renata Avila, CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation.

In Southeast Asia, the subject of developing digital competencies for civil servants is long overdue because digital transformation has been a driving force for the past 10 years, and yet the public sector is lagging behind.
Michael Cañares Strategy Advisor for Step Up Consulting Services and Advisory Board Member of the Global Data Barometer, keynote speaker at the workshop

Digital Transformation in Southeast Asia

In his opening presentation, Cañares emphasized that developing civil servants’ digital competencies is an important issue for digital development in Southeast Asia. Cañares’s research data shows that civil servants are reluctant to adopt the digital transformation process due to their limited amount of exposure to digital technologies. Major hurdles in governments’ digital transformation journey include civil servants’ risk aversion and their lack of understanding on the potential value of digital transformation. Therefore, a comprehensive digital competencies framework should address more than just knowledge and skills, and include elements such as change management, as it involves some attitude and work culture changes too.

Dr Jun-E Tan, a policy researcher from Malaysia, added that key factors contributing to successful digital transformation are strong political will and economic imperatives. Conversely, digital transformation tends to fail when policy incoherence leads to different layers of government having different ideas of what it means to ‘digitalize’.

Contributing his private sector perspective, Victor Ndaru, co-founder and CTO of SEEDS Indonesia, a supply chain traceability platform, observed that digital transformation tends to be sectoral rather than a crosscutting and whole of government process.

Putting People at the Center of Policymaking

Questioning the fundamental assumptions around digital transformation, Steven Yang, a UNESCO trainee from Singapore, challenged the notion that more digitalization always leads to better policy outcomes for people. “We must first obtain greater clarity on the questions ‘Why digitalize?’ and ‘How much to digitalize?’” he said.

Egbert Wits, research and development manager at EngageMedia, a non-profit media, technology, and culture organisation, suggested that a key competency for civil servants is the ability to convert data into actionable knowledge. He observed that governments in Southeast Asia are collecting huge amounts of data but are largely oblivious on how to use the data meaningfully to create policy or programs that contribute to a positive impact in society.

The digital competency framework should be grounded by the circumstances of how digital transformation can positively impact people’s everyday lives. We should put people’s needs above all.
Michael Cañares Strategy Advisor for Step Up Consulting Services and Advisory Board Member of the Global Data Barometer

What competencies will the civil servants of the future need?

Sherly Haristya, an internet governance researcher from Indonesia, noted that while governments need to uphold international standards, it is equally important to consider how digital transformation will work differently in different local contexts. Therefore, an understanding of local context is a key element to the digital competency framework.

Given that governance challenges in the future are multi-faceted and across different domains such as technology, finance, and climate, Dr Tan urged the group to consider inter-disciplinarity as one of the key competencies for civil servants. While it is important to digitalize, having sound governance fundamentals should always remain the priority. She concluded: “Digital governance is about governance, the digital part is just an incidence.”

This workshop is part of a series of global and multi-stakeholder consultations to design the Digital Transformation and AI Competency Framework for Civil Servants. As an open resource, the Competency Framework will be context-sensitive and adaptable for use to support capacity building for civil services across ICT Ministries and Digital Units in governments.