Departments’ digital transformation ‘hobbled’ by staffing and skills challenges, MPs find

A new report from the Public Accounts Committee issues a stark warning that, due to issues with personnel and senior support, government remains able only to make ‘superficial’ digital progress

Digital transformation efforts in government are being hampered by job cuts and uncompetitive pay, MPs have warned.

The government has half the digital, data and technology professionals it needs and particularly “chilling” shortages in cybersecurity, the Public Accounts Committee said in a new report today.

The shortage of digital expertise means the government is unable to genuinely transform its services, and can only make “superficial”, incremental upgrades, the report – Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency – said. This risks increasing costs in the long run as the government is forced to rely on ageing legacy systems, the MPs added.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said: “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 cybersecurity experts should send a chill down the government’s spine.”

Just 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with an average of 8-12% in other sectors, according to the report. Despite the need for a much bigger DDaT workforce, the committee found government has “self-inflicted” part of the shortfall through “counter-productive” staffing cuts. Departments have been “rationing digital headcount, such as apprenticeships, when they are struggling to recruit and retain the skilled people they need”, the report said.

Hillier added: “The government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them.”

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Departments are also struggling in the digital jobs market, as pay constraint means they cannot fully compete with the private sector in hard-to-recruit roles such as data architects and cybersecurity experts.

The Cabinet Office-based Central Digital and Data Office told the committee it is trying to improve pay for specialist roles, and that it believes this is improving the situation. It said it can also offer interesting and rewarding opportunities, and the possibility for digital career progression up to levels of seniority “that were almost unheard of” several years ago, making a career in the civil service a more attractive proposition.

The Cabinet Office also recently unveiled plans including a new digital secondment pilot and cross-government apprenticeship programme to attract and retain more tech talent. The department opened applications for the secondment scheme this week.

But MPs’ report warned that, “despite offering interesting opportunities, and the new possibility of digital career progression to executive committee level, departments are vulnerable to trading on the goodwill of staff if pay is consistently lower than outside the civil service”.

PAC said the CDDO, which was created in 2021, has also made “good progress” by getting “firm commitments” from departments to follow the government’s three-year digital transformation roadmap, published last year – obtaining £4bn in extra funding for digital transformation, and implemented mechanisms to monitor departmental progress and identify risks to delivery.

But the committee warned that successive governments have consistently failed in their transformation efforts, which have included 11 digital strategies in the last 25 years. It says the skills shortage and the potential for competing pressures to take priority leave it “unconvinced” the roadmap will buck this trend.

“Despite these good intentions and encouraging early steps, there are many challenges to overcome if the government is to achieve the savings and improvements to public services that digital transformation offers,” the report said.

Its recommendations for the government include: recruiting more senior digital business leaders; increasing the number of non-executive directors with relevant digital expertise; appointing chief digital and information officers to senior decision-making bodies; and formalising the requirement for senior generalist leaders to have a better understanding of digital.

Union Prospect said the report “rightly highlights the fact that the civil service has less than half of the digital and technology experts it needs, with critical skills shortages at all levels including within the SCS” and “identifies some of the key barriers to building capacity and capability, including arbitrary restrictions on recruitment, and the fact that pay is consistently lower than outside the civil service”.

“Many employers we deal with are struggling to recruit and retain the specialist staff that they need,” Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said. “This leads to an over reliance on expensive private sector contractors or sees important work simply not being done. The government needs to recognise the value and importance of their digital and specialist staff, reward them fairly and invest in building digital capacity and capability across government.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “We have a comprehensive programme in place for recruiting and retaining technical skills and training civil servants in the vital digital skills needed to deliver modern public services. This includes increasing the size of the specialist digital, data and technology function across departments by over 10%, boosting access to digital training and improving specialist digital and data pay through reinvesting efficiency savings.”

On cybersecurity concerns, the Cabinet Office said it is “increasing training and investment in developing cybersecurity skills at all levels, including cyber boot camps and uptake in computer science”.

Sam Trendall

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