Bridging digital skills gap could cost government £244m a year, says NAO

The UK’s spending watchdog has said that there is a need for “greater urgency” in the government’s plans to tackle skills shortages in the civil service.

Whitehall needs to boost digital skills – Photo credit: PA

In its Capability in the Civil Service report, published on 24 March, the National Audit Office identified three main capability gaps for the civil service: digital, commercial and project delivery.

It said that, as citizens expect more personalised public services and as Whitehall is being required to make deeper savings, the government is increasingly turning to large-scale transformation programmes that rely on new digital technologies.

The government is also making efforts to bring its IT back in-house, while reforms to tax legislation that are expected to drive out private sector contractors could leave the civil service lacking skills.

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Departments have said that the civil service will need to bring in around 2,000 more staff in digital roles in the next five years – the digital, data and technology profession currently numbers around 17,000.

The NAO’s report said that the extra staff would cost between £145m and £244m a year.

However, it said that the Government Digital Service and Infrastructure and Projects Authority expected that the skills shortages “will be much greater” because of the range of transformation projects the government is undertaking.

In addition, the NAO said that the “scale of the challenge means there is a need for greater urgency” from the government and the plans it has put in place to deal with the shortage.

For instance, it said, the government’s plan to increase skills within the civil service would take time to deal with the skills gap.

The report also said that the government lacked a proper understanding of how the private sector can help supply the skills it is missing.

“The civil service needs people who can carry out highly technical projects with large digital and behaviour change components,” the NAO said. “People with these skills are scarce and government tends to assume that it can get the skills it needs for projects from the private sector.

“However, around one in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled.”

The NAO also said that departments don’t know what skills they have or whether they are in the right places, and that Whitehall needed to “develop a more sophisticated understanding” of its needs.

“Government’s workforce planning has focused on the number of people in posts and tended to treat these as generic,” the report said. “As a result it has not assessed the skills of the current workforce in a comparable or structured way.”

Although the NAO acknowledged that departments are producing better workforce plans, it said that there was still “a long way to go to address the lack of underlying information”.

The NAO report also urged departments to work out how to integrate specialists into their teams, noting that a disconnect between policy and digital civil servants often led to cultural challenges that needed addressing early on.

“One of the starkest examples of how this can go wrong is the Rural Payments Agency and GDS’ failure to work effectively together on Common Agricultural Policy delivery,” the report said.

“Departments have yet to set out how they will adopt functional leadership and its implications for their working practices.”

The NAO also highlighted the challenges that the UK’s exit from the European Union will cause the civil service.

This will include the enforcement of a new immigration system, which experts have said is likely to rely heavily on digital technologies and could place extra pressure on the Home Office’s digital teams.

The NAO’s report noted that there had been some positive moves towards dealing with the problems for digital skills, for instance through the expansion of the Digital Academy and GDS’ work to create a common taxonomy for those working in the profession.

But it also noted that the pay flexibility that have been called for repeatedly – in part to make sure that the government can compete with the private sector – still “depend on approval from HM Treasury”.

The NAO said that – in the absence of a short-term solution – the government should prioritise its projects, activities and transformation programmes. “It should stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver,” the report said.

The report’s estimates are similar to those made by the comptroller general Amyas Morse at an Institute for Government speech last July, when he said that the civil service needed to find about 2,800 digitally-skilled staff at a cost of £213m.


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