Blog Post

Closing the Government Tech Talent Gap: Lessons for Latin America

    Author:
  • Ena Solorzano
| May 25, 2021

Throughout 2020 and 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to every corner of the planet, we saw governments around the world rushing to put in place critical services - such as contact tracing and vaccine distribution - using modern technology. Success in these tech efforts varied from country to country, and many developing countries looked to the U.S. to see how government tech performed in the midst of a global crisis. In this crisis, though, the software failures were common across the board. Just as in the U.S., Latin American news outlets reported crashes on COVID-19 case tracking sites, government assistance websites, and vaccinations sign-ups sites.  

Unfortunately, these are only the latest examples that show that Latin America is facing the challenge of how to make sure government tech projects do not fail by default. Throughout my research here at the Belfer Center, working with TAPP Fellow Mark Lerner, I have found that it does not have to be this way. The primary solution is the same in Latin America as in other places: there is truly a need to bring government tech talent in-house.  

I recently convened an amazing group of former and current U.S. Federal Government leaders - Jennifer Anastasoff, Founder and Executive Director of Tech Talent Project; Keith Jones, Chief Information Officer at the U.S. Department of State; Robert Shriver, Associate Director of Employee Services at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; and Mark Lerner, TAPP Fellow at the Belfer Center - to discuss what it means to Close the Government Tech Talent Gap and address this exact problem in the U.S. Federal government. As a Latina American citizen myself, I was immediately curious about how these lessons could inform the efforts of Latin American countries charting their path towards Digital Government. While the U.S. is definitely at a different stage of its digital transformation journey and operates in an entirely different context, here are a few thoughts on what it means to close the government technical talent gap in Latin America.  

Technical Talent in Latin American 

Before diving into lessons and recommendations for Latin America, it is worth highlighting the context in which Latin American governments operate when it comes to technical talent and digital transformation.  

It’s well known that there is the critical need in the region to develop a robust STEM-skilled workforce. According to studies made by The Inter-American Development Bank, nonprofits like the Worldfund, and data from the OECD PISA evaluation, not only is the region ranked poorly for quality of education, but over half of 15 years olds perform poorly when it comes to basic math and science. Any conversation about technical talent in Latin American governments would be incomplete without a serious consideration of the required investment in STEM education at the K-12 level, as well as higher education in the region.  

Figure 1. OECD - PISA Mathematic Performance Comparison 

Note: Latin American countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Chile, depicted by colored data points. OECD average depicted in red for comparison.
Source: https://data.oecd.org/pisa/mathematics-performance-pisa.htm#indicator-chart 

Figure 2. OECD - PISA Science Performance Comparison 

Note: Latin American countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Chile, depicted by colored data points. OECD average depicted in yello for comparison. 
Source: https://data.oecd.org/pisa/science-performance-pisa.htm#indicator-chart  

Despite this gap in workforce development, there is a brightspot for the region when it comes to technology talent. Latin America has seen a tech boom in the last few years, from a thriving tech entrepreneurship ecosystem to the rise in tech talent outsourcing in the region. There is rising investment on technology in the region from private companies (both local and international) and the public sector alike. This rise in tech companies means that the available workforce is growing, and while this is good news for the region as a whole, it does mean that governments will have increased competition in attracting technical talent for public service jobs.  

Additionally, Latin American Countries are each at varying stages of their digital transformation journeys. According to the 2018 UN E-Government Development Index, a comprehensive measure of e-government development worldwide, Latin American countries fall into two groups. On the one hand we have countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay that were among the top 50 performers of 193 countries in the index, and, on the other hand, we have Latin American countries like Belize, Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua appear to be among the worst performers worldwide. Despite the differences in performance, the UN E-Government Development Sub-Indices show that human capital remains a lagging component and a challenge for the entire region and, as such, must be a key priority for the public sector every step of the way.  

Figure 3 . United Nations E-Government Development Index, by Component, Latin and the Caribbean, 2014, 2016, and 2018 

Source: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/2f8d4fc8-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/2f8d4fc8-en#sect-85  

Closing the Government Tech Talent Gap in Latin America 

The Closing the Government Tech Talent Gap“ panel focused on how the U.S. Federal government could tackle some key technology problems through the strengthening of in-house technical talent. Anastasoff discussed the challenges and opportunities the new wave of CIOs and CTOs have in hiring, retaining, and leveraging technologists in government agencies. We also explored why agency leadership should prioritize in-house tech human capital, unpacked the resources they have available to do so, and re-imagined the outcomes of government services should they be able to accomplish this.  

Given the specific context of the Latin America region explored above, it’s easy to see that the next steps in digital transformation for the governments of Latin America are very different from those for the U.S. Federal government. However, I believe that there are critical lessons that we can translate from the U.S. digital government movement.  

Here are the three key lessons from the U.S. Federal Government we heard from Jennifer Anastasoff, Keith Jones, Robert Shriver, and Mark Lerner along with some ways in which we can translate these lessons to Latin America. 

Lesson #1 - Bring technologists to the table: underinvestment in technical talent stifles innovation and increases waste.  

As Jones noted in the conversation, for the U.S. Federal government to re-imagine its technological outcomes, it needs to shift from vendor-driven technology to government-driven technology. While this does mean that current government leaders need to be involved with the technology aspect of policy and service delivery projects in the public sector, it also means that we need to (1) bring more technical leaders and talent into government and that (2) they need to get involved in tech-related policy work and digital government efforts from the very beginning. When government leaders take a backseat designing and delivering technical programs, or when they do not have the right skillset to take the driving seat, governments end up with poor outcomes, siloed technology initiatives, and ballooning spending. 

“As CIO, I am looking to build cohesion within our department and start shaping our workforce, building up skill sets, so that when we effectively engage with vendors and have the right people at the table.” - Keith Jones  

 

As Shriver shared in the conversation, not having the right technical talent within government “will stifle innovation, weaken customer services and increase waste”. But, what is the right technical talent and who are these technologists governments need to increase innovation and reduce waste? There is no one background or type of experience that defines a modern technologist but we do know that modern technology teams in government must include developers, designers, product managers, user researches, and agile development specialists, people with skill sets that can build and deliver human-centered government services.  

What does this mean for Latin American governments?  

The truth is, with a growing digital economy, more and more Latin Americans are expecting digital government services with urgency. Countries like Peru and Argentina have assembled teams of technologists in-house that are already successfully delivering government digital services. Yet, the region overall continues to lag behind OECD countries, like the U.S., when it comes to having a robust STEM-skilled workforce to begin with. Latin American governments must, in fact, bring more technologists into public service to succeed in their digital government journeys. However, having a robust tech talent pool to draw upon is a precondition to bringing technologists into public service and getting them involved in transforming government. In order to bring technologists to the table sustainably and for the long-term, Latin American countries must continue to heavily invest in STEM education at all levels - in K-12 education, in higher education, and even in the re-upskilling of its existing labor force. Argentina and Peru, among other countries, have shown that upskilling government officials and enhancing tech talent pipelines in the public sector is possible, but Latin America must continue to do this with a particular eye on skilling and building the rising technical talent pool in the region and on the fierce competition for technical talent from other sectors in the region’s economy. 

Lesson #2: Creating a robust tech talent pipeline and hiring process requires active recruiting practices and subject matter expertise.  

As a giant bureaucratic institution, the U.S. Federal government has complex and institutional hiring processes that can become blockers to building a robust government tech talent pipeline. Shriver reminded us that creating a robust tech talent pipeline “is a whole end-to-end process that has to work all the way through” all the way from defining the qualifications of a job, to actively recruiting tech talent, all the way to making an offer, onboarding, and developing tech talent once they are in government. Ultimately, creating a robust tech talent pipeline requires active and modern recruiting practices, rather than posting an announcement in a job board that only a few know about. 

“There is a lot of focus on hiring authorities, but there is a whole end-to-end process that has to work all the way through.” - Rob Shriver 

 

As Shriver mentioned, revamping hiring processes in the U.S. Federal government requires revamping qualification standards and systems that are now outdated. It also requires investing and creating good competency-based assessments supported by subject-matter expertise from the very beginning. As Lerner puts it, the U.S. Federal government “needs to build up and strongly support the talent teams: recruiters, HR specialists, people that work directly with candidates and move them through the process” in order to fully capitalize from the growing interest in public interest technology.  

What does this mean for Latin American governments?  

Countries like Argentina and Panama, have established digital service units within governments, not unlike the US Digital Service and 18F, to accelerate digital transformation. Overall, Latin American governments are no different when it comes to the bureaucracy and complexity of hiring processes for government positions well beyond the digital service units that currently exist. Therefore, it is important for these governments to take internal stock of their own hiring practices and policies and begin to understand where blockers to bring quality tech talent into public service exist. For example, when it comes to active recruiting practices and the lack of stem-skilled talent in the region, Latin American governments should actively build strong partnerships with academic institutions and create career pathways for young, diverse, and qualified tech talent to enter public service. Overall, Latin American governments should continue to actively invest in their tech talent recruiting strategy as opposed to passively waiting for talent to show up.This is particularly important given the increasing competition from the private sector for tech talent in the region.  

Lesson #3: HR and Tech Leaders within Government must work together to bring the right people in and upskill the current workforce to meet 21st century needs.  

Anastasoff reminded us that collaboration between Human Resources, Policy, and Tech leaders in government must start at the very beginning of any tech talent hiring or digital initiatives. This means that it is key to have technologists be part of both hiring and policy conversations when making critical decisions that involve technology. Yet, many people in Government still struggle to distinguish when the challenges and opportunities they are facing do require input from technologists. 

“It all starts with a shared understanding” - Jennifer Anastasoff 

 

Anastasoff urged us to re-think that role of storytelling in this process and the importance of giving current technologists, in and outside of government, the platform to help current government leaders connect the dots about what technologists do and how that directly impacts the outcomes they want to achieve with public policy and service delivery. Ultimately, it is about approaching hiring and policy questions from an interdisciplinary perspective and getting people together to develop a shared understanding of the role of technology and technologists in public service.  

What does this mean for Latin American governments?  

As such, governments in Latin America should continue to give platforms to digital service delivery units to showcase the power of digital teams in the region. Nonetheless, governments in the region must find ways to encode processes and policies that require human resources, technical, and policy leaders to interact with each other to identify the tech talent needs of government agencies across the board. In the U.S., a cross-agency project called Subject Matter Expert Qualification Assessments (SME-QA) has been a great example of how to accomplish this but that has yet to scale across all government agencies. While this process might not fit in all Latin American government bureaucracies, it does have the characteristics of the kind of interdisciplinary relationships that must be forged within government institutions to successfully close the tech talent gap in the long term.  

Conclusion 

Overall, Latin America is already encountering challenges and opportunities when it comes to their digital government transformations. But, the fact is that no matter where they are in their journey, Latin American governments must prioritize closing the tech talent gap. Whether it is investing in creating a more STEM-skilled workforce through education, actively recruiting and competing for tech talent in the region, or creating internal processes to best leverage and grow in-house tech talent, there are many lessons to be learned from governments around the world that, like the United States, continue to struggle, learn, and iterate on these efforts. For that, I am grateful to Mark, Jennifer, Keith, and Rob for sharing their lessons with us.  

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Solorzano, Ena .Closing the Government Tech Talent Gap: Lessons for Latin America .” Perspectives on Public Purpose, May 25, 2021, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/closing-government-tech-talent-gap-lessons-latin-america.

The Author

Related

Photo of Mark Lerner