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MPs raise alert over Whitehall digital skills shortage


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has raised an alert over a shortage of digital skills, partly due to staffing cuts, in the Civil Service.

It has published a report on the progress in digital transformation in government, warning that the skills gap could increase risks and costs as it is holding Whitehall back from transforming its services.

The committee has highlighted that the number of digital, data and technology professionals in the civil service is around 4.5%, according to Government estimates. This is less than half the number it needs when compared to an equivalent industry average of between 8% and 12%, meaning this number will need to double.

But pay constraints prevent departments from fully competing with the private sector in hard-to-recruit roles. The inquiry leading to the report heard of particular shortages of cyber security experts, whose skills command a premium.

In addition, the PAC says it was disappointed to learn that the digital headcount has been rationed in departments, thereby contributing to the skills shortage.

It says the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) should try to counter this by helping departments to avoid digital headcount cuts, and that departments should quantify the impact of the skills shortage, be ready to scale back programmes and be explicit about delays and missed opportunities.

Generalist leaders

Its inquiry also found that the requirement for senior generalist leaders to have a better understanding of digital business has not been formalised. This has prompted a recommendation that digital responsibilities, such as improving digital services and addressing the highest risk legacy systems, should be included in letters of appointment at the most senior levels in all departments.

All this has fed into a situation in which only 10 of the Government’s ‘top 75’ services are at a ‘great’ standard, and 45 require significant improvement, when assessed for how easy they are for people to use and how efficiently departments are providing them.

The report says the services often lack a single point of accountability in a senior owner who could provide transparency on efficiency and effectiveness.

In response, the PAC calls for departments to identify a suitably senior and experienced single owner for each government service.

Changes too slow

PAC chair Meg Hillier MP commented: “One of the hallmarks of the digital revolution has been rapid and accelerating change. Our inquiry has found that Whitehall’s digital services, far from transforming at the pace required, are capable of only piecemeal and incremental change.

“Departments’ future proofing abilities are hobbled by staff shortages, and a lack of support, accountability and focus from the top. In particular, a lack of cyber security experts should send a chill down the Government’s spine.

“The Government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them. Our inquiry leaves us unconvinced that these aims will be achieved in the face of competing pressures and priorities.

“Digital must not be treated merely as a sideline, but must sit right at the heart of how Government thinks about delivery. Without swift and substantial modernisation, opportunities to improve services for the public will continue to be lost.”

Legacy systems frustration

Among the other issues identified in the report are that departments are mainly making piecemeal changes to legacy systems rather than investing in service redesign. It says they should set out in business cases how to resolve the legacy issue show how redesigning services will reduce costs.

Another is that central functions such as procurement have not make progress in treating digital programmes differently from those for physical infrastructure. This should be countered with more clarity over plans to achieve digital reforms in central processes, so the CDDO can identify blockers and disagreements and how to resolve them.

The PAC report follows one from the National Audit Office, published in March, that also expressed concerns over the lack of digital expertise holding back transformation in Whitehall – but which was generally positive over the contribution of the CDDO.

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