MPs call for clear digital goals for newly appointed perm secs

Public Accounts Committee has called for plans for technology and data targets to be enshrined in the recruitment process for new department leaders to be implemented as soon as possible

MPs have urged the Central Digital and Data Office to bring forward a target designed to bolster digital skills among top-level civil servants.

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee has written to the CDDO welcoming its commitment to ensure digital responsibilities are included in letters of appointment to permanent secretaries – but asked it to justify the June 2025 target date for the goal. The recommendation was one of several made by the committee in a report last September that warned government’s approach to recruitment, retention and skills was hampering its digital transformation goals.

The Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency report said digital responsibilities, such as improving digital services and addressing high-risk legacy systems, should be included in letters of appointment at the most senior levels in all departments alongside reference to their financial responsibilities.

“We were… surprised to see that the standard appointment letter for permanent secretaries makes no mention of their responsibilities for improving digital services, despite including others such as managing public money,” the report said. “Including reference to digital responsibilities would make clear the importance of the area. For example, it would mean permanent secretaries are fully aware of their responsibilities to address legacy systems.”

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The Cabinet Office accepted the recommendation in November, saying in a Treasury minute that the CDDO would write to the committee in the following months setting out a plan to implement it.

No such letter from the CDDO has yet been made public.

But in a letter to its chief executive Megan Lee Devlin this month, PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier questioned why the unit was giving itself more than 18 months to implement the practice as standard.

She said the MPs wanted to see an “accelerated response” to their recommendation.

“In our view, implementing this recommendation should be quite straightforward,” read the letter, which was sent on 10 January but published this week. “Therefore, we urge you to consider getting the necessary agreements from departments in place much sooner and commit to a much earlier implementation date or, alternatively, provide an explanation of why this is not possible.”

Hillier asked Lee Devin to send a written response to her letter – which was copied to the Treasury and comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies – by 9 February.

Beckie Smith

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