Spending watchdog sounds warning on government’s ‘severe shortages’ of digital skills and ‘unsustainable’ legacy IT

The annual report from the Public Accounts Committee chair cites the lack of technical expertise and ongoing prevalence of ageing digital systems among the ‘big nasties’ requiring urgent Whitehall spending

Parliament’s public-spending watchdog has warned government that it needs to address a “severe shortage” of technology skills and a legacy IT estate that has become “unsustainable”.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, recently published her annual report, containing a round-up of what she sees as government’s major “challenges and opportunities”. These are split into three areas: long-term thinking and investment; resilience; and risk-management and understanding.

Technology crops up frequently across all three strands, particularly the need for upgrades to departments’ skills and systems. Both of these issues are identified as cross-government challenges in the report’s concluding list of “big nasties”, which constitute areas requiring “essential spending which cannot be put off”.

Hillier’s report says that “government has fewer than half the digital, data and technology professionals that it needs, leaving departments reliant on contractors, [and], concerningly, there are particular shortages of cybersecurity staff”.

The PAC chair warns that ministers and senior officials should “ avoid simplistic headcount targets and instead invest continuously in staff development to maintain resilience”.

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As well as impacting security, the lack of expertise identified can also hinder major projects, according to Hillier, whose report points to the near-£1bn government spent on retaining the services of external consultants during the 2019 fiscal year.

“Government has severe shortages of skills in many sectors including digital, cybersecurity, nuclear, engineering, construction and public audit. A lack of specialist skills affects both the efficiency and effectiveness of government projects,” she adds. “Many projects and programmes across government are afflicted by delays, inefficiencies and budgetary overruns, often due to a lack of specialist skills amongst officials. The lack of skills must be addressed otherwise there will be huge risks to delivery of major capital projects.”

Another of the PAC chair’s “big nasties” is the ongoing prevalence of legacy technology platforms, which imperils security and presents a barrier to digital transformation, the report finds.

“Across government, outdated IT systems and its ageing data are a key source of inefficiency and a major constraint to improving and modernising government services,” Hillier writes. “Many of these ‘legacy’ systems were built several decades ago and are now costly to run and risky. Failure to modernise legacy systems exposes organisations to possible service disruption, operational failure and cyberattacks. The increasing costs of maintaining legacy systems and loss of associated specialist skills is unsustainable in the long term. Government must make long-term investment to improve and modernise its systems to deliver the best possible service to taxpayers.”

Sam Trendall

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