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A question over Whitehall’s digital cash



Analysis: Could funds be allocated differently to fill the ‘digital capability gap’

Last week’s words from Auditor General Anyas Morse must be prompting some questions about where the digital money is being spent in Whitehall.

His speech to the Institute of Government on the unsustainable pressure of major projects on the Civil Service included some figures on what he described as the “digital capability gap” – a need for 2,800 staff over the next five years at a cost of £213 million.

It’s a big figure, but not outstanding in context with some of the money dished out around Whitehall. In last November’s Spending Review HM Revenue & Customs was allocated £1.3 billion for digital projects, while the Prison Service received a similar amount. And of course, there’s the £450 million given to the Government Digital Service (GDS) for the next five years.

It’s tempting to look at that figure and wonder if half could be devoted to filling the gap that Morse identified. The money was meant to bring in digital skills, and the National Audit Office has said these are lacking in the implementation of major projects. There must be officials working on high profile schemes who could see a credible case for a chunk of reallocated cash.

Osborne's rationale

But there is little chance of that happening given the workings of Whitehall. On one hand, the apparent thinking of then-Chancellor George Osborne was that the GDS allocation was a long term investment into developing technologies that could be reused throughout central government and beyond. The rationale was to spend now to save more in the long term.

On the other, the Cabinet Office now has the money, and few would expect any Whitehall department to surrender funds to support a more immediate need in another.

To its credit, GDS has been hiring staff in preference to splashing out on contractors, which fits well with Morse’s estimate that the cost of filling the gap would double in using the latter. And it is showing a readiness to work with digital teams in other departments.

But it focuses its efforts in line with its own agenda, and this won’t provide much consolation to project teams struggling to meet the demands of ministers while lacking the digital specialists who can make it happen.

Which adds more fuel to the underlying conclusion of Morse’s speech: that Whitehall has too much big stuff going on at the same time.

By Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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