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Skills competition forcing governments to get more tech savvy

If vendors and partners will get creative, there's opportunity to help governments innovate to compete for talent, British Columbia has already begun

The public sector will be hit by the retirement of the baby boom generation and the resulting shortage of skilled workers the same as any other industry, but with a few additional challenges. Among them? Difficulty in offering the high-tech tools and collaborative work environment that the next generation of in-demand skilled workers will be looking for.

If IT vendors and channel partners can get creative with licensing terms and solutions that can address public sector needs, there is opportunity for the channel helping public sector organizations equip themselves to be employers of choice in the next-generation battle for talent.

Such a change is already underway in B.C. Dave Nikolejsin, CIO for the Province of British Columbia, said when the province began a public service transformation and corporate human resources plan in 2006, the government’s use of information technology was very much part of the discussion.

“It got all of us thinking about how to address these very serious things coming toward us, such as demographics, and encouraged us to look forward and think about collaboration and how can we change the way we collaborate to do work for the public,” said Nikolejsin. “We looked a lot about how work gets done in public service. One of the things was that obvious to us was that work doesn’t stay in the program anymore.”

Another conclusion was that government was lagging in the IT tools and programs it made available to its employees.

“The expectation used to be that people would have better tools at work than at home but we’re long past that,” said Nikolejsin. Now, the reserve is truer. “People now have computers at home with a much richer experience and when they go to work it’s a less fulfilling experience. For youth coming into the workforce that’s a huge issue.”

Technology expectations aren’t just rising for public sector employees. Nikolejsin said Web 2.0 is fundamentally changing the expectations citizens have around how they’ll be able to interact with their government.

However, before the province got serious about more deeply ingraining technology into its culture, Nikolejsin said it was important to look more closely at how it bought and licensed software, particularly the recurring need to license software.

“That just wasn’t good enough anymore,” said Nikolejsin. “We wanted to take a good hard look at that because software is a significant investment. It’s not just a lot of money, but it’s also where a lot of work gets done.”

Another driver as the province re-evaluated its IT strategy was climate change. B.C. has an aggressive carbon reduction strategy and it wanted to make collaborative tools a priority as way to reduce the need to travel.

The result for the province was to end its ad hoc software licensing practices in favour of investing in a more feature-rich but cost-effective set of standardized and largely Microsoft Corp.-based collaborative software accessible to the entire B.C. public service, including school boards, health authorities and municipalities.

“The end result of that decision was to do a broad enterprise agreement with Microsoft around the full advanced enterprise communications toolset,” said Nikolejsin. “The result to date has been pretty amazing. Not only has a huge price advantage, but standardization on toolsets had a transformative effect.”

Besides the basic tools everyone now has access to unfamiliar tools such as OneNote, a Microsoft Office collaborative tool. When the government paid for software a la carte it would be metered out, but Nikolejsin said with everyone getting the full toolset whether they need it or not workers are finding new ways to work, and to work more efficiently.

“It’s an incredibly powerful business model, and users are the ones doing the innovation,” said Nikolejsin. “This isn’t innovation designed at the office of the CIO or the IT manager. It’s innovation happening on the ground by the end user.”