Image source: Hackney Council
Interview: Rob Miller, strategic director, customer and workplace for the London borough, explains how its apprenticeship scheme has strengthened its digital capability
The struggle to recruit and retain people with digital and data skills is a perpetual issue for local government.
It is a quickly changing and competitive market in which top end private sector companies have more financial clout and the lure of cutting edge projects to attract talent, making it hard for councils to strengthen their own capabilities.
But there is scope to build a pipeline of skilled specialists by bringing them in young, giving them frontline experience as they acquire the knowledge and immersing them in the public service ethos – with the prospect that plenty of them will stay in the sector for the long term.
This is the thinking behind the development of digital apprenticeships. They have become established in central government departments such as HM Revenue and Customs and the Home Office, and some local authorities have launched initiatives to make them a feature of their digital, data and technology (DDaT) strategies.
It is an approach that has produced benefits for Hackney Council, according to its strategic director, customer and workplace, Rob Miller.
Building a pipeline
“The focus for us has been building the skills pipeline,” he says. “When we were beginning to build our digital team at Hackney in 2017 we knew it was already very hard to hire for some roles and that the way we wanted to develop our team meant we were going to be moving into even more competitive areas.
“Hackney Council has a couple of things that are very important. One is that it has an overall insourcing strategy with a really clear commitment from the administration to building strong in-house teams; and we have a strong commitment around apprenticeships.
“Hackney has achieved some of the best educational outcomes in the country over the past 20 years, and we have an amazing pool of people coming through the educational system. So looking at our structure it seemed obvious we should be thinking about how we tapped into the corporate commitment to apprenticeships and a pool of people coming from local education system.”
This led it to take in its first cohort of digital apprentices in 2018 - mainly school and college leavers, but some who were older and looking for a career change – and embed them within its service, accounting for 15-20% of the roles in different disciplines.
They spend 20% of their time learning, arranged in ways determined by the apprenticeship providers, and the rest as members of council teams working on different projects. These have included developing its cloud platform and supporting the shift to hybrid working during the Covid-19 pandemic, with individual roles that Miller says have been important in terms of delivery.
Working with teams
“They will be doing a qualification related to a particular area of work that will be relevant to the team they are in, but might be working on different projects at different points,” he says.
The apprenticeships tend to run for 18 months to two years, with the majority working up to a level four qualification, but some going up to level six or to a degree.
Support on key elements such as selecting providers and managing the apprenticeship levy – paid by the employer – is provided by an apprenticeship team within the council, and there are heads of delivery and talent and culture within Miller’s team to provide more specific support.
He says that, since the first cohort entered in 2018, the council has learned some valuable lessons about the right approach, not just about the apprentices’ early development but to give them a path for career progression.
“We’ve learned you need the right balance, with capacity to support the apprentices. Secondly, how important it is to have community across apprentices to support one another.
“We’ve also been thinking about completing a new structure, so will go out to hire into new permanent roles, and have looked at whether we have the right roles for people to progress into. So in the new structure we’ve shifted the balance a little with more associate roles and reducing the apprenticeship roles a little. We’re looking to make sure they have the right stepping stones for the next stages of their careers
“We’ve also looked within each team at what are the conditions for an apprenticeship to be successful. Are the standards well defined? Is the provider market working well? Are they good providers? Some have been more successful than others.
“And is the team itself in a position where we are confident we can provide a good experience for apprentices? There are some areas where teams are in more flux and we are not as sure that we need an apprenticeship in that area, so have said it is not the right time. In others we have not had the turnover of staff and know there are no openings coming for them to progress to, so even though we could do a good apprenticeship we’ve held fire for now because want to make sure there are progression opportunities.”
Miller acknowledges it is not possible to do this for everyone, but says there have been cases in which a fixed term position for specific projects has been made available.
Hackney has now taken in two cohorts with about 50 people going through the programme, with a high rate of successful completions and some from the first group now moving into mid-level and senior roles. Some have moved to other employers – which he says often reflects the roles they become interested in – but the programme has helped to build in the in-house talent pool.
The council has also had an influence around London through its work with the London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI), collaborating on its How to HACKIT x LOTI guide on setting up and running digital apprenticeship schemes in local government. This was part of a LOTI that involved the creation of over 100 digital apprenticeships in the city from 2019-21, for which Hackney contributed almost a quarter of the total.
Miller says other councils can gain a lot from LOTI’s initiative, and that there is a lot more scope for regional partnerships – maybe more than national – in the area.
“For me the regional collaboration is a sweet spot where you have those geographic ties but are using that collective scale,” he says.
This could help local government build its capability in key areas – Miller cites cloud engineering and data skills as among those where it is going to need plenty of people – and develop a new approach to how it uses the respective teams.
“One of things I’m really proud of is how we’ve shifted from a very reactive support model to one that is much more proactive and user centred,” he says. “It’s partly through investing in technology like cloud tools with fewer issues, and the team have really stepped much closer to our users and given more tailored personal support with consultancy type work to help people use the investments we have made.”
Hackney has now taken in two cohorts and is making plans for a third, and the scheme seems set to become a long term feature of its digital capability.
Miller wraps up with “the overarching message is that it’s been hard to hire people with IT and digital skills for a long time, but we’re now five years down the line with our apprenticeships and have really seen the impact in our teams”.