As Federal agencies increasingly look to capitalize on the rich data they are collecting, they need to ensure their workforce is up to the challenge. However, many agencies are finding that their current workforce lacks the needed skills.  The Office of Management and Budget estimates that approximately 400,000 Federal employees will need to be reskilled by Fiscal Year 2021 – accounting for nearly 20 percent of the government’s current workforce. To help get the workforce they need in place, agencies are looking for ways to effectively retrain and reskill their workforce to enable an agency-wide digital transformation.

During a recent MeriTalk webinar sponsored by Coursera, Emily Sands, vice president of Data Science at Coursera, David Pearson, director of the Defense Department’s (DoD) Defense Acquisition University (DAU), and Sachiko A. Kuwabara, PhD, MA, director of Risk Management and Operational Integrity Division of Emergency Operations at the Center for Preparedness and Response Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), came together to discuss how agencies are capitalizing on data to create a digital transformation and how they are making sure their workforce has the skills needed to modernize.

The Role of Data in Agency Transformation

Starting off, Sands stressed that “data is a strategic asset that can be critical to success for Federal agencies.” To that end, she highlighted three “core opportunities” of data. The first is around decision science, or as Sands puts it, making “better decisions faster.” The second opportunity concerns developing machine learning (ML)-powered digital experiences. “This is about delighting partners and citizens with technologies and services that wouldn’t be possible without data and harnessing that data through machine learning,” she explained. Finally, the third opportunity is around automating costly human workflows. This means agencies can provide services of higher quality at a lower cost by building  a “combination of fully automated solitons for the most routine tasks, and for more complicated tasks, developing human-in-the-loop solutions that allow people to be more efficient and empowered by predictive insights.”

Kuwabara explained that data science has played a “central and critical role” in addressing the pandemic. “I can’t think of a question we’ve been asked where we have involved data science,” she remarked. Most importantly, she said that the pandemic has “underscored our need for data that moves faster than disease. It’s highlighted the need for timely, accurate, and automated data that can be used for public health and emergency response.”

How to Train and Reskill an Agency’s Workforce

In terms of how the workforce needs to evolve to meet the needs of data science, Pearson said that any increased use of data “has to be based upon a foundation of a workforce that grasps and fully embraces data as a way to help solve its problems and DAU can use its training platform to help do that.”

When it comes to how to train an agency’s workforce, Pearson zeroed in on promoting data literacy across the workforce. He said that as he builds out training products, he’s focused on understanding what data literacy means for each employee and what skills an employee needs to be considered to have data literacy. “Does everyone really need to be able to program in Python to be considered data literate? I don’t think so,” he said. “But I do think that everyone needs to have a basic appreciation of statistics to be able to properly interpret data, use it to support decision making, and be able to critically assess the information they’re getting.”

Kuwabara drove home the struggle agencies are facing when it comes to modernizing and using data effectively. She said that “people and [agency] culture have struggled to keep pace. The reliance on outdated technology has led to a workforce that is insufficiently equipped to transition into more modern ways of doing business.”

To help agency employees modernize, Pearson said the training needs to be role-based. As he builds out trainings, Pearson is looking to develop skill lanes, where DAU creates a role-based series of learning assets that tailors the training to the specific skills that that role requires. He also said that they have to bake in the ability to shift lanes as an employee’s domain changes or they advance in their career.

Sands concurred with Pearson, saying that effective trainings need to be comprehensive and focused on developing the right skills by role and function for the jobs that need to be done, as well as making sure the training can scale in the current environment.

Covid-19 has Served as a Force Multiplier for Modernization

Tying back to the role COVID-19 has played in modernization, Pearson acknowledged that the pandemic has been challenging for all education providers. He said that turning FY2019, DAU delivered over 5 million training hours, and about half were in the classroom mode. However, over a couple of weeks, the classroom mode “just disappeared,” which forced the university to “rethink everything about our entire delivery model.” Initially, DAU just shifted classes over to a virtual format but didn’t change the way the courses were taught. Pearson explained that DAU learned was that they couldn’t just “lift and drop” from a classroom to a virtual environment. “So, we’ve had to go back and redesign many of our courses from scratch for this new mode of delivery,” he said. In the virtual environment, Pearson explained that “you have to be really overcompensating for interactivity. You have to make sure you are keeping students engaged and not allowing them to be multitasking and doing other things.”

While the shift may have been challenging, Pearson said he believes the transition will last long after the pandemic. “We’ve learned an awful lot, and we’re not going back,” he said. “After looking at the business case, it became very, very clear to us that it’s going to be very difficult for the DAU to justify going back to the previous methods of delivery.” So, after the pandemic, “we’ll be able to go back to the classroom, but we won’t because we’ve paved the path for this new method of delivery,” he said.

To learn more, view the full webinar.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.