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Time to address the digital skills gap

Source: PSE Apr/May 17

Yvonne Gallagher, director of digital value for money at the National Audit Office (NAO), discusses the digital skills gap in the public sector.

The NAO recently published a report on the ‘Capability gap in the Civil Service’ where we highlighted digital skills gaps. The report updated some of the survey findings in our previous report on ‘The digital skills gap in government’ which examined the situation of digital skills in departments and agencies. Although the NAO’s survey and report focus on government, many of the findings are applicable across the whole of the public sector. 

Austerity and government reforms have highlighted the need for digitally-enabled business transformation to achieve cost reduction through major service redesign. To achieve this, however, government needs its digital and technology profession to possess business change skills, to lead and govern digital transformation, understand business models and operational implications, and deliver organisational and cultural change. This is in addition to those in IT, technology and data. The NAO’s survey, however, pointed to broader, systemic issues on skills which need to be tackled if government is to realise its ambition to transform services.

 Is digital transformation really about business change? 

One of the issues that arose from the survey is whether digital transformation in the Civil Service 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 in our survey told us that 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. 

Attract and retain 

The ability to attract and retain digital change people 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 to recruitment and retention. 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 barriers. 

Our survey also found there are 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.  

Significant staff shortages 

All these have left central government with some serious shortages in its digital capacity – the number of people with relevant skills – and capabilities – the nature of the skills it possesses. It is also seeking to reduce its reliance on outsourcing IT providers, which means that departments face a twin challenge of adopting new digital technologies and ways of working, whilst building in-house IT capability that until recently were mostly outsourced. Departments recently reported they would need around 2,000 additional staff in digital roles in five years’ time. But the Government Digital Service (GDS) and IPA believe shortages for digital and project delivery skills will be much greater, particularly given the range of transformation projects and new technologies ahead.  

Government has based its plans on growing skills in the Civil Service, and that will take time to develop. But the scale of the challenge means there is a need for greater urgency as government needs to measure and tackle its digital capability gaps. A more sophisticated understanding of its digital capability is needed, both within individual departments and in its cross-cutting function. 

The Civil Service also needs people who can carry out highly technical projects with large digital and behaviour change components. People with these skills are scarce and government tends to assume that it can get the skills it needs for projects from the private sector. However, government needs to understand better the market’s capacity to supply skills. Around one in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled. Many of these were for senior posts with specialist commercial or digital skills. Our review of departmental workforce plans to date suggests departments do not have clear resourcing strategies to fill such capability gaps. 

Some encouraging signs 

There are some encouraging signs of efforts to improve this situation. The government’s 2016 Civil Service Workforce Plan focuses on developing career paths, opening up recruitment and changing pay structures to attract key staff. It also highlighted priorities to improve the Civil Service’s expertise in digital transformation. There is a digital function under GDS which has a number of activities underway to improve their capability, focusing on better recruitment and development. They have introduced the Digital and Technology fast stream, cross-government digital academy training, are creating a common taxonomy for defining and naming digital job roles, developing consistent pay and allowances for critical digital roles, and will carry out annual capability assessments of staff to consider their position within a pay range. 

Many of these initiatives have the potential to have an impact on the long-term capability of the Civil Service, but this could take many years. Fast streams, for instance, will not improve the leadership capability in the short term, and while academies can raise awareness of issues, they cannot replace on-the-job learning. This is an area which will need sustained commitment both in the short term and over a long period from the centre and senior leaders, as well as the digital and technology community.


The ‘Capability gap in the Civil Service’ report can be accessed at:



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