Civil service faces pre-Brexit battle with private sector for ‘rare’ tech skills

Chief executive Manzoni lifts lid on centralised recruitment drive for digital specialists as Whitehall looks to bring in extra staff ahead of Brexit

Whitehall’s chief executive has claimed that the civil service needs to hire around 1,300 specialists for the “implementation” phase of Brexit, with digital picked out as an area where additional skills are needed.

John Manzoni, who also serves as permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, told MPs this week that the civil service had centralised and simplified its recruitment processes to prepare for Britain’s EU exit.

But he also raised concerns about having to compete for digital staff with the private sector, when questioned by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee about how departments are monitoring and funding Brexit-related projects. 

Manzoni claimed that recruitment for technology has traditionally been “even more disparate across our organisation” than other areas such as commercial or project management. 

“But they have started now – their first central [recruitment] campaign was initiated two or three weeks ago,” he added. “We have done quite a lot of set-up. I do think there could be an issue in the marketplace – we are competing for skills that are pretty rare. But it’s not as if we are alone, because there are plenty of private-sector companies also preparing, so we have been having conversations with suppliers.”

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Manzoni added: “All of the various routes have also been teed up in the marketplace… so that we can access those when we need to. I don’t think this is going to be without bumps, but I think we are as well set as we can be.”

The Whitehall leader described Whitehall’s Brexit’s work as being in phases, with the first phase – looking at the problem and understanding the nature of the issues – having gone “extremely well”. He said the next phase was going to be more focused on implementation.

“That is a process that Whitehall is less familiar with, I would say, in history, but a process which nonetheless we have been focusing very hard on,” he said. “I would say that is work in progress.”

Manzoni told MPs that Whitehall had identified 3,750 new roles needed to deliver Brexit – around 2,400 of which had already been filled, with 25% of those from outside government.

He added: “We’ve established a process and a machine that can redeploy and hire the kinds of people that we’ve needed. Most of those to date have been, actually, policy-oriented people, and as we go to the next phase they’re going to be different kinds of people – they’re going to be people who need to build systems, or people who need to manage projects, or perhaps do some commercial…

“Do we have the people that we need for today? Yes. Do we have the people that we will need to build all of this stuff in the next year or 18 months? The answer’s no, and we’ve got to go and get them.”

In addition to its first central recruitment campaign for technology, Manzoni said that Whitehall is in its third such initiative for project management – which will seek to place 150 staff. Some 100 project management staff have been placed so far through these central campaigns.

He also said the “functional structure” that was set up across government had helped them hire specialist staff, and that a new vetting system had been put in place to speed up background checks.


Sam Trendall

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