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September 13, 2023updated 14 Sep 2023 9:45am

Report: Digital skills shortages within the civil service will increase risk and cost to UK government

In a blistering new report, the Public Accounts Committee said the government has failed to achieve 'successful' digital transformation.

By Sophia Waterfield

The UK government is not keeping pace with its digital transformation, says the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). According to a new report from the cross-party parliamentary committee, the government’s digital transformation is being actively hindered by the lingering use of legacy systems, a growing shortage of digital skills within the civil service, and “counter-productive” staffing cuts.

As such, said the committee chairperson Dame Meg Hillier MP, the government was only capable of achieving its digital transformation goals in a “piecemeal” way. What’s more, said Hillier, attempts to future-proof the government’s digital capabilities were being hobbled by a “lack of support, accountability and focus from the top”, and that the low number of cybersecurity experts employed in Whitehall should send a “chill down the government’s spine”.

A gold sign that says Cabinet Office.
The civil service is lacking in digital skills which will cost the government in the long term, says a new report from the Public Accounts Committee. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The PAC’s new report assessed the government’s top 75 services according to how easy they were to access and how efficiently they were being provided. Their investigation found that only ten could be classified as “great”, while 45 required “significant improvement”. The committee also found that there was a “lack of visibility and control over end-to-end services”, with many requiring manual administrative effort and interaction between different systems. In some cases there appeared to be no single owners for these services or effective ways to measure their cost and performance.

The PAC also said that departments were making small changes to legacy systems rather than “investing in a more efficient wider service redesign” that could deliver greater efficiencies for the government and the public in the longer term.

Public Accounts Committee criticism

In June 2022, the UK government’s Central Digital and Data Office launched its roadmap for digital transformation in government. However, an audit found this year that the public sector was struggling to close its digital skills gap and catch up to the private sector.

For its part, the PAC recommends that the CDDO proactively supports departments in avoiding making further digital headcount cuts. The committee added that the CDDO should report to the government every six months on each department’s progress towards achieving its digital transformation goals and that a “suitably senior and experienced single owner” be appointed for each service responsible for keeping track of its overall cost and benefit to the public.

The PAC did concede that some small steps have been taken to digitally upskill senior civil servants, including the piloting of a Digital Excellence programme. However, only 300 people have received the training so far, representing less than 5% of the senior staff. What’s more, this is far off the target set for this month of 15%, and the target of 90% by 2025 set by the CDDO.

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“The government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them,” Hillier said. “Our inquiry leaves us unconvinced that these aims will be achieved in the face of competing pressures and priorities.”

“Without swift and substantial modernisation, opportunities to improve services for the public will continue to be lost,” she concluded.

Government says it’s “stepping up”

This is not the first time the PAC has been critical of the government’s handling of its core digital transformation initiatives. As reported by Tech Monitor, it has also investigated the slow progress made on tackling online fraud, the botched upgrade of systems supporting criminal courts, and repeated delays in delivering the new Emergency Service Network (ESN).

In response to the PAC’s latest report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told Tech Monitor that it has a comprehensive programme in place for recruiting, retaining and creating tech talent within government. “This includes increasing the size of the specialist digital, data and technology function across departments by over 10%, boosting access to digital training and improving specialist digital and data pay through reinvesting efficiency savings,” they said. The government was also “stepping up” its cybersecurity skills through increased training and investment at “all levels.”

Professor Richard Benham, a government cybersecurity adviser and a non-executive director of Emerge Digital, told Tech Monitor that the government needed to bring in experts from outside of the public sector if it wished to keep pace with the rapid changes taking place throughout digital technology. “The government needs cyber experts,” he said, “futurists who understand the ripple of impacts on every part of our lives, helping us to get it right the first time.”

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