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Old problems persist for digital Whitehall



Analysis: New NAO survey shows that central government’s limitations in the jobs market continues to place limits on its digital capabilities

Awareness of how a digital transformation could improve the outlook for public services is on the rise, but some of the old barriers are still firmly in place.

A new survey of central government digital leaders from the National Audit Office (NAO) shows that Whitehall’s limited clout in the jobs market continues to be a factor, along with cultural attitudes and problems in developing the overall skills base.

The NAO provides little comment on the outlook and does not attempt to analyse the issues on the scale of its audit reports, and The digital skills gap in government is essentially a top end survey, taking in responses from 72 digital and technology leaders in 45 organisations. But it provides some useful evidence of where central government stands in its digital transformation effort.

The outlook is not as encouraging as might be expected, given that over the past 15 years different governments have blown the trumpet for the cause.

Transformation or IT?

There is a key finding in perceptions of digital and technology, with most of the respondents saying they see it a key element of business change and transformation, but that the organisation in which they worked is more likely to view it as being simply about IT.

It points to a continuing failure to change attitudes beyond IT teams. There are senior officials who buy into the need for digital transformation, but it has not seeped into the culture of Whitehall, at least not to the extent that people see it is a positive step.

While it may be down to a lack of evangelising, it is probably connected with another factor that is not addressed in the survey – that many people appreciate how digital could make government much more efficient, but also fear that it implies big job losses and a curtailment of many careers.

Recruitment issues

The ability to attract and retain digital leaders is also a factor. Asked about issues affecting recruitment and retention, most respondents see them as negatives rather than positives.  The amount they are able to pay, the Civil Service recruitment process and external market conditions emerge as the largest barriers, although others such as perceptions of working in the service and limits on the number of people with the required skills are also significant.

Another notable finding is that about three-quarters of digital leaders have been in their posts for less than two years, with about half having previously worked in the public sector. It would be enlightening to know how long they intend to stay and whether they want the next position to be in the public or private sector; but that is a question that would probably get too few responses to provide a worthwhile guide.

There are also problems in developing the skills of existing staff, notably in the budgets available, organisational culture, career paths, the priority of digital and technology to other issues, and senior management’s spending priorities.

This is all leaving central government with some serious shortages in its digital capacity – the number of people with relevant skills – and capabilities – the nature of the skills it possesses. It is having a significant effect in data analytics, information security, cyber security and digital forensics, with the respondents saying they need to improve and obtain more support.

Encouraging signs

There are some encouraging signs, notably in that respondents regard central initiatives to build the skills base as helpful. They provide positive reactions to initiatives such as the GDS DaT Skills Matrix, the Major Projects Leadership Academy, the Skills Framework for the Information Age and the GDS Recruitment Hub.

The NAO also points to some of the broader, systemic issues that have to be tackled. These include embedding digital within overall business strategies, aligning digital and commercial operating models, providing clarity over the role of human resources teams in building the capability, and looking for guidance on insourcing.

These could all contribute to progress; but the key feature remains from when government began its first big digital push at the beginning of the 2000s – top salaries lag behind those in the private sector, and the people who prove themselves to be top performers at all levels are easily lured away.

This will always be a factor for government, and given the current spending outlook it is likely to intensify. There has been good work in building Whitehall’s digital capability and there will be more to come; but this is a barrier will always have to be climbed over, not removed.



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