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Developing Canada’s digital-ready public service

Attracting and retaining a highly skilled, diverse workforce to support the Government of Canada’s digital strategy
Federal government Public servants Skilled workforce Government services Electronic government information E-government Public sector innovation Information resources management Canada

The federal public service has ambitious plans to develop a transformational digital platform that will support innovation; enable delivery of user-centered, customized, and accessible services; and increase transparency and accountability. Such a platform is critical for meeting the public’s expectations for efficient and effective government.

To move toward information technology modernization, Canada’s public service must attract and retain world-class talent with the digital skills, experience, and mindset to drive this change. However, government is hamstrung by a skills gap. Not only does Canada suffer from a shortage of professionals with the skills government needs, but the people who possess digital skills are increasingly in demand in other sectors.

The skills shortage is most acute in areas including artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, the Internet of Things, cloud-based development, and matching technology to the specific requirements of users. Virtually all industrial sectors are now increasingly reliant on technology, and demand for skills has increased more swiftly than supply.

For decades, Canada’s public service has been an employer of choice, offering opportunities to serve, coupled with job security, benefits and career advancement. However, there are some issues that are limiting government’s ability to attract highly skilled candidates. While government offers a work environment that aligns with the aspirations of many young job seekers—particularly with respect to serving a social purpose—some aspects of bureaucracy are less appealing. The work environment is perceived by some to be hierarchical and slow moving, with limited opportunities for advancement compared to the private sector.

Moreover, the federal public service’s complex rules and processes, including a lack of flexibility to negotiate compensation, put it at a disadvantage for attracting and retaining the best and brightest digital talent in a highly competitive market. While immigration has helped decrease the skills shortage in some sectors, public sector requirements and rules, such as the need for bilingualism, make it less easy to tap into this pool of workers.

These issues are particularly vexing as they relate to the hiring of skilled women. Increasing the participation of women in digital roles advances the design and decision-making process and allows organizations to hire from a broader talent pool. The absence of diversity in general in the development of digital technologies has been shown to allow bias to be embedded into products and services.

While senior roles in the federal public service have achieved something close to gender parity, women continue to be under-represented in technology roles. Most troubling is the significant decline in the percentage of young women in technology roles due to a smaller pool of women pursuing education in engineering, paired with an increase of demand for women talent by the private sector.

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