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NAO chief says Whitehall has ‘digital capability gap’

22/07/16

Amyas Morse claims there is a need for 2,800 staff with digital skills – and says the Government should be ready to ditch some projects

Auditor General Amyas Morse has warned Government ministers that they are pushing the Civil Service beyond its capabilities with the number of major projects, with a capability gap in digital skills being one of the prime consequences.

The head of the National Audit Office (NAO) used a speech to the Institute for Government to call for a ruthless prioritisation of projects, including the cancellation of some that are already in progress.

His central message to the think tank was that the Civil Service is already over-committed and needs to step back from initiatives that are not mission critical.

A trend for ministers to throw more at departments has arisen from their desire to leave a mark on their time in office, but is creating series problems around skills, money and time. One of these is the growth in capability gaps.

People demand

“The digital capability gap in people terms means that government needs to find around 2,800 staff with the digital skills to undertake its digital change projects over the next five years,” Morse said.

“If government managed to employ all of the digital specialists required as permanent civil servants, it would cost £213 million to fill the gap. And it would be roughly double that in contract labour.”

This follows the publication by the NAO last December of a survey on the digital skills gap, which pointed to a wider shortage across all industries, and said there is a need for more focus on specialist capabilities below the senior levels of the Civil Service. Among the factors getting in the way of recruiting the right people were a limited supply, external market conditions and cultural issues.

Amyas-MorseMorse (pictured) highlighted the obvious problems in departments having to take on more with less money, using a 40% cut in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ administration budget as an example.

“We need to ask ourselves, 'is it reasonable to plough on with such departmental reform plans?',” he said.

He also flagged up unrealistic timescales and an “optimism bias” for some projects. All this led him to call for a lightening of the load on the Civil Service, not just by adding projects but by lightening existing ones.

As an example of how to approach the prioritisation he pointed to two major digital projects. For the first – HM Revenue & Customs’ Real Time Information – he suggested it would be a bad move to delay it as there would be knock-on effects for the PAYE system and the Department of Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit programme.

Airwave option

By contrast, the replacement of the emergency services’ Airwave network would have few implications and could be placed on hold for a few years.

“But the current collection of processes do not yet amount to the coherent framework for prioritising and managing public sector activity,” he said. “And progress is too slow for the current dynamic environment in which we find ourselves.”

Image from National Audit Office

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