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April 21, 2023

Could DSIT’s Expert Exchange solve the public sector’s digital recruitment problem?

Private sector experts are joining the government's new technology department. They may face a culture shock.

By Sophia Waterfield

Private sector experts in quantum and artificial intelligence (AI) have joined the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) as part of its Expert Exchange secondment scheme. While the programme shows a willingness from DSIT to work with the private and academic sectors, it also highlights the lack of tech skills within the department and across government.

Michelle Donelan, Science and Technology Secretary, is pictured.
Michelle Donelan, science and technology secretary, announced the DSIT Expert Exchange scheme. (Photo courtesy of UK Government)

The Expert Exchange aims to “overhaul” the way secondees are brought into government from UK academia and industry. DSIT wants to bring in “cutting-edge expertise” to drive momentum on research as well as technologies of the future such as quantum, data science, semiconductors and life sciences.

DSIT says it also aims to “cement the links” between science, tech and research sectors, and the government, giving secondees first-hand experience of working within a government department on the placement of up to nine months. The department says that the secondments will support DSIT’s core missions to put the “full might of the UK government” behind science, innovation and technology, which it believes will foster the growth of future industries and improve the lives of citizens.

Tech secretary Michelle Donelan said the government must “leverage the insight of the UK’s world-leading science and technology sectors, including ensuring that the best talent within these areas is behind our mission”.

Donelan added: “Today marks the start of the UK’s finest minds joining us through the Expert Exchange and bringing their expertise to evolve and expand exciting innovations in science and technology. I hope this new approach will bolster collaboration between the government, industry and experts.”

What is DSIT’s Expert Exchange?

Expert Exchange is a secondment programme that sees workers from the private sector and academia joins the public sector or government departments – in this case, DSIT – to learn about the inner workings of the civil service and also pass on knowledge in areas of interest.

DSIT says it builds on the objectives of the Science and Technology Framework, which was launched in March. The framework aims to grow the UK economy, create high-paid jobs and also “cement the UK’s place as a “global science and technology superpower” by 2030.

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The government department says that the secondments will support the objectives of the framework by building on the UK’s existing talent and skills base to create a pro-innovation culture throughout the public sector.

In a typical secondment, the releasing employer will invoice the host for the employee’s salary as well as any on-costs for the period of the secondment. Tech Monitor has contacted DSIT to confirm whether this model is being used for the Expert Exchange.

Who is on secondment at DSIT?

According to the announcement, DSIT is initially working with the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to “identify high-performing, mid-career academics and engineers”. A chosen few will be embedded into the DSIT policy teams for up to nine months at a time, contributing their skills and knowledge to the policymaking process.

As well as this, the secondees will make a “valuable cultural contribution to the department”, which is part of DSIT’s ambition to be a “modern, agile organisation that reflects the sectors it seeks to champion”.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said the institution was “delighted” to support the secondment programme.

“Technology and engineering have the potential to impact every part of government policy and delivery, so it is vital that government can access the expertise it needs and that engineers develop their understanding of how to engage with policymakers,” she said.

Sillem added that the government was demonstrating its commitment to “advancing the pro-innovation politics that will be essential for the UK” and tackling global challenges.

DSIT says that more secondees are expected to join the department through the year, with work ongoing to bring in experts from industry as well as academia. The announcement states that officials are also exploring whether the secondments could become a two-way process, with DSIT civil servants potentially “undertaking placements in academia or industry to gain a deeper understanding of the sectors” they set policy for.

Moving from the private sector to government can be a ‘culture shock’

One public sector expert told Tech Monitor about their experience in a government secondment from their private sector job. Rob Anderson, public sector research director at Global Data, said that he took part in secondment from IBM into the Cabinet Office around 12 years ago and explained that it had benefitted him long-term.

“It was very rewarding for me to understand more about central government works,” he told Tech Monitor. “Having been a supplier and then being on the other side of it with the customer, I understand both sides of the coin for what I write about now.”

Anderson explains that he went into the Cabinet Office during a time when they were trying to disaggregate from single big suppliers. He joined the commercial relationships team under Steven Kelly, who is now the chief operating officer for the government. Anderson confirmed that his IBM salary was invoiced to the Cabinet Office during his secondment.

He also says that the secondment benefitted the Cabinet Office as through his own experiences in working in the private sector, he was able to help the central government negotiate better deals, saving taxpayers money.

However, his experience of the culture of the public sector also helped him realise the drawbacks of central government and progress can be slow: “I think the government has a dreadful corporate memory; as soon as one thing has gone, it tends to be forgotten about,” he says.

Anderson adds that the public sector is a “very different beast” to the corporate work: “People moving in from industry can find it a bit of a culture shock,” he says. “It doesn’t suit everybody.” He believes this is one reason why government tech leaders tend to stay in post for short periods, as they find it difficult to push through change.

Do secondments help with recruitment gaps long-term?

But Anderson believes that secondments also help with droughts in recruitment. A recent National Audit Office report highlighted that only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, and 37% of government digital, data and technology recruitment campaigns fail.

The public sector is renowned for paying less than the private sector for the same job. Most recently, this resulted in backlash when the Treasury promoted a job advert for a head of cybersecurity with a salary of between £50,550 to £57,500. The private sector would pay on average £93,112 per year, according to recruitment portal Glassdoor.

“Because of pay scales and because of the way recruitment works, it’s easier to [procure contractors],” explains Anderson. He also agrees that the secondment scheme raises questions about why the civil service and central government will pay more for private sector contractors but not their own staff and whether they could be investing elsewhere to upskill their own staff.

“They could invest more in digital and education,” he says. “Get suppliers to run courses or workshops to help them do it. Why they don’t do that, I’m not sure.”

The research director also believes that the secondment scheme indicates that upskilling is not a priority for DSIT. “If they were serious about it, they would put a minister in charge who was committed to technology,” he says.

Read more: UK government lays out 21-point roadmap for digital transformation

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