Two in five officials complete data training as departments pitch for innovation funding

Cabinet Office has revealed that more than 200,000 civil servants have taken part in the One Big Thing initiative, while also confirming shortlisted bids for its data challenge funding contest

More than half of all staff at core departments and 40% of civil servants across government took part in the four-month One Big Thing data-skills drive, the Cabinet Office has said.

A total of 212,000 officials are known to have participated in the learning-and-development initiative, which launched in September last year and offered staff the opportunity to improve their skills and knowledge about data as part of ongoing government reforms. One Big Thing 2023 offered all civil servants the opportunity to take a survey to establish their “learning level” and then undertake seven hours of e-learning, recording what they did and then providing feedback. All courses were supposed to be finished by 31 December.

In a blog post last week, the Cabinet Office said that 182,000 “core” courses had been completed by officials at the end of the programme, and that 703,000 hours of data learning had been provided to programme participants.

The figures suggest that around 30,000 people started a course they did not complete and that those officials who did complete their courses spent less than the expected time doing so.

According to the Cabinet Office, the Department for Work and Pensions led ministerial departments in terms of take-up, with 84% of staff signing up for training. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was in second place, with 82% of officials. Third was the Home Office with 72%.

Home Office permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft is sponsor of the “digital skills at scale” mission under the government’s Transforming for a digital future: 2022 to 2025 Roadmap for Digital and Data.

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While DWP and DSIT featured in the top five ministerial departments for course completions as well as sign-ups, the Home Office did not.

Two non-ministerial departments had higher take-up than DWP for One Big Thing: the Office of Road and Rail (87%) and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (85%).

The Cabinet Office said organising One Big Thing had required a “huge collective effort” across the civil service, supported by leaders and delivery teams from all government departments along with the Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, the Central Digital and Data Office, the Office for National Statistics and the Incubator for Artificial Intelligence.

“The digital and data mission was launched in July 2023 as part of Government Reform Phase 2 and aims for the civil service to harness the power of digital and data to make better decisions, improve service delivery and enhance user experience,” the Cabinet Office said. “It’s a key element of government reform and a major part of our vision for A Modern Civil Service.”

It said that on average one civil servant signed up to learn about data every 15 seconds of each working day from the 4 September launch of One Big Thing.  Wednesdays were the most popular days for sign-ups.

The theme for One Big Thing 2024 is due to be announced later this year.

Challenging work
Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office has also revealed details of the shortlisted finalists for the 2024 edition of the Civil Service Data Challenge – a competition intended to uncover data-based solutions to public service challenges or operational issues.

Eight ideas have been chosen to go onto a “Dragons’ Den-style” pitch exercise on 21 March, the best presentations from which will progress to a grand final on 4 July. The winning entry will receive £50,000 funding to develop their proposal, as well as the support of senior officials and technical assistance from NTT Data – the tech firm that partners with the Cabinet Office on delivering the challenge.

The shortlisted proposals are:

  • NHS Geospatial Planning Tool – Department of Health and Social Care
    This proposes the use of public data and open-source software platforms to help NHS staff plan patient home visits more effectively
  • DWP Training Tender Evaluation – Department for Work and Pensions
    A proposal for summarising bids from potential suppliers via generative AI
  • Streamlining the NHS-DWP Death Data Exchange – Department for Work and Pensions
    This entry outlines plans to automate sharing of death-record information between government and the health service
  • Border Control Queue Optimisation – Home Office
    A proposal to bring together data sets and introduce digitisation to the tracking of passengers at airport border control
  • Policy Summarisation with Gen AI – Home Office
    An entry that sets out plans for boosting staff tools by incorporating artificial intelligence
  • Unlocking Unstructured Prison Data – Ministry of Justice
    This propose the use of data analytics to review text-based data and find new insights
  • Optimising Prison Space Management – Ministry of Justice
    An entry which suggests the implantation of algorithms to help anticipate, in real time, the availability and location of new prison spaces
  • Accurate EV Usage Distribution Mapping – Department for Transport
    A proposal to support local funding for electric-vehicle charging infrastructure by making better use of data analysis

Sue Bateman, chief data Officer at CDDO – and one of the competition judges – said: “From the hundreds of entries we received this year, the shortlisted project ideas stood out for their originality, potential to improve productivity, and benefit to UK citizens through responsible and innovative use of data and AI.”

Alex Burghart, parliamentary secretary at the Cabinet Office, added: “It’s very encouraging to see so many dynamic, innovative and exciting data-led project ideas submitted by professionals working on the ground across the Civil Service and NHS. Digital and technology solutions like these have the potential to improve public services in the long-term and offer real life, fresh ways of managing data, whether it’s in prisons, at border control or across the NHS and Department for Work and Pensions.”

Jim Dunton and Sam Trendall

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