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The digital skills gap in government

By: Yvonne Gallagher, Director of Digital Value for Money, NAO
Published: Wednesday, January 13, 2016 - 10:39 GMT Jump to Comments

The National Audit Office's report uncovers misconceptions about the role and significance of digital transformation and ongoing problems regarding the recruitment and retention of employees with digital expertise.

We recently published our survey report The digital skills gap in government which examined the situation of digital skills in departments and agencies. Austerity and government reforms have highlighted the need for digitally enabled business transformation to achieve costs through major service redesign.

To achieve this, however, government needs the digital and technology (DaT) profession to possess business change skills, as well as those in IT, technology and data. Our survey points to broader, systemic issues on skills which need to be tackled if government is to realise its ambition to transform services.

One of the issues that arose from the survey is whether digital transformation is really about a business changing the way in which its services operate from old legacy models and processes, or whether government services will continue with its old ways relying on the IT function to change and update some of the IT elements.

This was highlighted in the finding around perceptions of digital and technology. Most of the respondents told us they see it as a key element of business change and transformation, but that the organisation in which they worked is more likely to view it as being simply about IT.

This underlines a continuing failure to change attitudes beyond IT teams. There are senior government leaders who really understand the need for digital transformation, but this has not progressed deeply or broadly enough so that digital transformation is seen as an inevitable and positive step.

The ability to attract and retain those who understand and appreciate the need for digital change is also a factor. Most respondents viewed issues affecting recruitment and retention as negatives rather than positives. The Civil Service recruitment process, external market conditions and the amount that the public sector is able to pay emerged as the largest barriers. Other factors, however, such as perceptions of working in the service and limits on the number of people with the required skills are also significant obstacles to overcome.

Our survey also found there are also problems in developing the skills of existing staff, notably in the budgets available, organisational culture, career paths, the priority of digital and technology to other issues and senior management's spending priorities.

All these leave central government with some serious shortages in its digital capacity – the number of people with relevant skills – and capabilities – and the nature of the skills it possesses. It is having a significant effect on data analytics, information security, cyber security and digital forensics, with the respondents saying they need to improve and obtain more support.

There are some encouraging signs, notably in that respondents regard initiatives to build the skills base as being helpful. They provide positive reactions to initiatives such as the Major Projects Leadership Academy, the Skills Framework for the Information Age, GDS DaT Skills Matrix and the GDS Recruitment Hub.

There are, however, broader systemic issues that should be tackled. These include embedding digital within overall business strategies, aligning digital and commercial operating models, providing clarity over the role of human resources teams in building the capability and looking for guidance on insourcing.

There has been good work in building Whitehall’s digital capability and there will be more to come, but the lack of alignment between government’s digital plans and the capacity and capability must be addressed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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