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June 1, 2022updated 05 Aug 2022 11:14am

Senior civil servants told to get to grips with AI and cloud computing

Public sector bosses must have a "basic understanding" of digital technology, according to new CDDO guidelines.

By Sophia Waterfield

Senior civil servants must have a “basic understanding” of digital technologies including AI and cloud computing, according to new guidelines from the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO). IT professional body BCS has welcomed the new guidelines, but others say they could be met with scepticism.

Cabinet Office
Senior civil servants should have a basic understanding of core digital technologies, according to new guidance from the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital & Data Office (Image by Raylipscombe / iStock)

The ‘Digital, Data and Technology essentials for senior civil servants‘, published yesterday, outline the technology understanding that public sector bosses need in order to meet the demands of the government’s civil service modernisation plan.

They include requirements in areas related to technology, data and digital transformation. These take the form of statements such as ‘I have a basic understanding of the most common technologies that underpin digital services, including APIs, cloud computing and artificial intelligence’ and ‘I understand my organisation’s digital strategy and objectives, and I know which digital services it provides’.

Other topics in the guidance include agile ways of working, managing legacy technology and multidisciplinary teams.

Publication of the guidelines follows the release of the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) playbook. The document supports the policy paper Declaration on Government Reform, helping the UK government realise its ambition to have “the best people leading and working in government”. Published last June, this policy paper reflects a meeting between Cabinet and Permanent Secretaries where they committed to a “collective vision for reform”.

Tech Monitor has asked the CDDO for more details on the guidelines, and whether additional training will be offered to ensure compliance.

DDaT guidelines for senior civil servants: mixed reaction

The new guidelines “will help senior civil servants develop the professionalism to provide effective leadership for cross departmental teams struggling to get their heads round bleeding-edge digital technologies,” says Dr Bill Mitchell, director of policy at the BCS, the UK’s chartered institute for IT.

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Mitchell believes that the new guidelines could go further in empowering senior civil servants to engage with “relevant external groups” and how technology impacts everyone, not just the immediate user.

“The guidance would benefit from also empowering senior civil servants to engage with relevant external groups who can help them keep on top of advances in professional practice,” he says.

“As it stands it gives the impression the civil service will know all the answers, which of course no one organisation does. Collaboration with outside bodies will really strengthen the effectiveness of the guidance and ensure we get the most from our taxes.

He adds: “I think the guidance needs to extend the principle of being user focused to considering the impact of technology on everyone affected by it, which goes beyond the immediate users of the technology.”

The guidelines are likely to be met with some scepticism among civil servants, however, says Rob Anderson, research director for the public sector, at GlobalData. “I know it says it’s mandatory for people to follow these guidelines,” he says. “But I think it’s been an exercise for the CDDO to produce something that won’t necessarily actually deliver any step change.”

Meanwhile, PCS, a union which represents government employees, linked the guidance to the news that 91,000 civil servants are to be be laid off across government departments.

“If the government thinks it can mitigate 91,000 job losses with AI and machine learning they are very much mistaken,” a PCS spokesperson said. “This could have a disastrous impact because decisions on benefits – decisions on how much money individuals receive, the difference, sometimes, between surviving and being made destitute-could be made by a machine without any human oversight, and that’s a horrifying thought.”

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Read more: Rishi Sunak blames benefit shortfall on outdated DWP tech

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