Build, buy and borrow: UK civil servants on the digital skills shortage and how to solve it

By on 16/05/2023 | Updated on 16/05/2023
Megan Lee Devlin of the UK's Central Digital and Data Office chaired the discussion

At a KPMG roundtable event, UK civil service leaders and private sector experts discussed how government could get the digital skills it needs for the future, from focusing on strategic workforce planning and upskilling to merging DDaT with other professions

The digital skills gap is becoming a major problem worldwide, with governments and the private sector competing for a relatively small pool of candidates who have skills needed to develop better services for citizens, boost operational efficiency and drive the economies of the future. To discuss how to close the gap, at the Innovation conference 2023, Global Government Forum and knowledge partner KPMG brought together 16 experts in digital capabilities and workforce planning for a roundtable discussion on how to solve the conundrum.

Mike Zealley, partner and managing director of KPMG Learning Solutions, kicked off the discussion by framing the digital skills shortage in the UK context and offering insight into how it might be addressed in the public sector.

He highlighted that 4% of the civil service workforce consider themselves to be digital and data technologists, whereas in the private sector that figure stands at between 8%-10%.

Closing this gap is a challenge, he said, not least because public sector pay growth sits at 2.7% while in the private sector it is 6.7%, “and the gap is widening,” Zealley said.

However, he made clear that focusing only on pay would not solve the problem. “People don’t choose to work in the civil service to earn more money than everyone else – there’s a wider purpose.” So what was important, he emphasised, was to think about the overall employee value proposition.

To attract talent, the public sector is pulling a number of different levers he said: building, buying, borrowing and bot. Leaders are working to build talent within the existing workforce through training, development and reskilling; they are looking to tap into external talent pools, either through strategic recruitment approaches or outsourcing; they are taking advantage of short-term surge resources or contingent labour; and they are using technology to automate tasks that can free up skilled digital capacity for other priorities.

Given the big changes in recent years – not least demand for extra staffing during the pandemic – borrowing had been relied upon heavily, but this is the most expensive option. What is needed, Zealley said, is a balance between the four ‘Bs’.

“We don’t see much evidence of people saying, ‘Right, where do we have an overreliance on contingent hire? When are they finishing their contract? What’s the succession plan? How are we getting people trained and following that through?’ It does happen, but not systemically.”

He said government leaders are now starting to use these four levers in a much more integrated way.

Col Campbell, a partner in the infrastructure, government & healthcare technology transformation team at KPMG highlighted three things that are crucial if an organisation is to harness the digital skills it needs: an “incredibly clear” skill sourcing strategy which allows it to balance the build, buy and borrow; tailoring the workforce and training strategy to the organisation’s technology roadmap; and communicating changes confidently so that employees understand what is being done and why.

What all this amounts to, and is for him “the most important thing by a country mile”, is the employee value proposition – if an organisation offers good training and learning opportunities and is confident about what it wants to achieve, that is “super attractive to people,” he said.

Support from the centre

Thomas Beautyman, deputy director of government digital capability in the Cabinet Office, explained what the central department is doing to relieve digital skill pressures from the centre. Twice a year his team collect data from departments on which of their staff identify as digital specialists, what roles they’re in, the grade they’re at and what their salaries are. This information translates into a “really rich” dataset that is allowing the Cabinet Office to move into strategic workforce planning, Beautyman said. The aim is to guide departments on what a sourcing framework might look like and considers, for example, the amount of volatility in niche roles when transferring risk to a supplier might be the most appropriate option.

To attract people to government, Beautyman said he had looked at a number of initiatives and brands from different departments that “genuinely have market value” – DWP’s Digital With Purpose programme, for example – with a view to building on them to form a whole government perspective. The goal is for anyone who has identified government as a potential employer to be able to “come to the front door and find out where these opportunities are”.

This will “actually turn the dial on our level of brand awareness and market access,” he said. “We’ll be able to reach out and demonstrate through a much, much clearer employee value proposition all the reasons why somebody might want to choose to work for us.”

He added that steps are being taken to ensure that government can pay competitively but that to attract talent it was also important to leverage the scale of the opportunities – the diversity of problems that people get to work on, the culture, and the teams.  

KPMG’s Mike Zealley highlighted that 4% of the civil service workforce consider themselves to be digital and data technologists, whereas in the private sector that figure stands at between 8%-10%

Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and director general for data capability at the Office for National Statistics didn’t disagree with Beautyman’s point about attraction but did offer a caveat: she said she believed that for some “trying to tackle a deep data complex in private industry to optimise revenue stream, for instance, is just as exciting as solving a complex problem in government. I don’t want us to think all we need to say is ‘we’re dealing with the citizen, this is the place to be’ – it’s a bit more sophisticated than that”.

She also raised a point about how government departments can develop their own talent. Big departments like the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) have the ability to upscale against a good threshold of knowledge and skill but “we mustn’t allow ourselves, in the smaller areas of small departments, to build our own based on a much lower threshold of experience and knowledge”, she argued. Instead that experience and knowledge could be shared between departments through better coordination and aggregation.

Digital and data literacy

On knowledge, John Motley, head of policy, assurance and compliance at the Ministry of Defence brought up a point about data. He said people are joining the civil service who are highly skilled and motivated and can very capably produce statistics. The problem is that the people receiving that data, who are usually the decision-makers, don’t necessarily know how to engage with it.

Megan Lee Devlin, chief executive of the UK’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) – who chaired the discussion – agreed there are different communities that need to be targeted in different ways. “And that’s about: how do you lead digital teams? Have you asked the right questions about the data? What does the world out there look like in terms of digital advancements? And what does that mean for the core business that you’re leading?”

She continued: “Certainly, as leaders of the function, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we deepen people’s skills in the right areas, and particularly future fit areas. And then there’s everybody else – our colleagues in policy or commercial. When I’m asking questions about what’s getting in the way of being able to procure things quickly, it’s often people. And it’s that skills gap. There’s a real piece about raising the waterline so that everybody has basic digital literacy.”

Ruth Ward, director of knowledge at the Government Legal Department spoke about what is being done there to raise digital literacy. The GLA is, she said, trying to raise the bar “in terms of confidence as much as capability” among its more than 2,000 lawyers who may not currently know what is possible and, at the same time, to rein in those who say “I want that shiny new toy I’ve seen” without necessarily understanding what it will take to implement.  

To do this the GLA is focusing on a strategic blend of the build, buy and borrow mentioned earlier by Zealley. For example, it was holding an away day for GLA ‘innovation champions’ hosted by a partner law firm in collaboration with suppliers to help it tap into external talent.

She added that legal teams have for years had to think about talent in terms of the need to do more with less, which has meant taking the time to “really think strategically across the different areas of practice about what is core and needs to be done in-house and what a managed service can be brought in to do”.

That approach, she said, “is probably much easier if you’re trying to do it for a single vertical than attempting to look across the piece – one size probably doesn’t fit all”.

Accounting for a changing technology landscape

Lee Devlin moved the conversation on to greater use of AI and automation and increasing need for people with ‘human’ skills, such as strategic thinking and empathy.

Oliver O’Mara, deputy chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said there is a need to look at the skills that will be required in the next 10 years and those in the next 20 which would likely to “dramatically” different. He mentioned the loss of STEM researchers in recent years which had translated to a huge skills gap in the UK – around 20% of graduates studied STEM in the UK compared to around 40% in Germany. Further ahead, he said the landscape would change, moving from the need for coders to copyeditors engaging with AI and language models and other emerging technologies. “We always want to put a frame on this and think ‘what do we mean by digital skills in the next 10 years compared to the next 20 years and how do we build towards that?’,” he said. 

Simon King, head of user-centred design at DWP highlighted that research had shown that overall the UK economy only has around 60% of the digital skills it needs. “It’s a structural issue and not something we’re going to solve in the medium-term cycle,” he said.

“We need to look at the marginal gains we can make in terms of using the resources we have more effectively and making sure that we’re transitioning them into the technology space of the future.”

This, he said, would mean “using the talent pool better” and realigning resources so that people can work across a range of common problems. “Promoting more flexible use of skills is absolutely critical.” 

Diversity and designing for the edge case

King also said that organisations should be “supercharging” diversity and inclusion initiatives in a bid to ensure fairness is built into policy and service delivery.

Lee Devlin agreed with both of King’s points. On the first, she said that service architecture should have reusable components that benefit not just one department but many. This is “a real opportunity and something that we shouldn’t lose sight of,” she said.

On diversity, she said “we need to reflect the population that we serve and that ties in neatly and with the conversation around designing the edge case because you can only really understand the edge case [an unusual or unforeseen situation where something may fail to work properly or as expected] if you yourself have experienced it. And I think it’s particularly important when we’re designing services for the whole population – we have a duty of care to design for the edge case so that we can reflect our communities”.

Pritchard built on this, pointing out that there were lessons from the past. Fifteen years ago when there was a push to boost delivery skills in government, policymakers were being told not to design policy in isolation but to think about the delivery environment and the context in which they were operating. “I think the same is probably true of the digital skills we’re talking about because it’s as much a way of thinking and an approach and a sufficient understanding of what the environment is around you”. We don’t want policymakers and deliverers who “fail to appreciate the volume of data needed to develop effective solutions”, she said, but you don’t necessarily need them all to become experts in acquiring data either.

She continued: “I don’t think we’re going to have the luxury of being able to pigeonhole people into an HR job or a digital job because that’s going to become a lot more blurred. But a really good clear articulation of what basic digital and data awareness is will be really helpful for us to drive up any laggards in our organisations.”

Communication and user-centred design

Rounding back to Campbell’s earlier point about confidence, talk turned to communication around culture change. As Lee Devlin put it “this can be quite terrifying if you’ve worked in your job for 20 years and you think that you might suddenly be replaced by a robot”. Therefore, what is important, she said, is to “meet people in the middle, have a constructive dialogue and get them excited about the opportunities in a much more collaborative way”.

Several of the experts around the table agreed that an effective way to do this, at least initially, was to use technology to reduce the pain points experienced by civil servants in their work, rather than focusing only on the experiences of citizens.

“Some of the more successful work out there is really taking from our non-digitally specific colleagues their own perceived constraints about what digital systems can do and getting them focused more on what the solution they want is and then to bring the digital and non-digital people, the whole team together to try it,” DWP’s King said. 

For Lee Devlin, thinking about colleagues as users helps capability leaders to consider how best to influence technologists to better meet users’ needs.

“We have some really crucial, internal, colleague-facing services and in my experience people need to see technology in action on their biggest pain points to believe in it,” she said. “So, starting the conversation around what are the things that really drive them up the wall – and it’s usually the boring stuff like the expenses system or the way they view their payslips – and looking at their needs from a holistic perspective and targeting them, that is a really valuable.”

Put simply, she said it was about identifying the problem, asking the right questions and bringing in the right multifunctional emphasis on that problem using the best technology.

DDaT and other professions – a blurred line

The next focus of discussion centred on the Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) profession with some of those around the table suggesting that it wouldn’t survive longer term because effectively all civil servants would be doing it in all roles.

This was a notion that Lee Devlin pushed back against. She argued that we need deep specialisms in digital and technology and that while there would be integration, people with skills in emerging technologies, like AI, are going to be the ones who “pave the way and help us to execute on some of these great ideas that we have”. 

Here, Shannon Nolan, deputy chief scientific adviser at the MoJ, expanded on what her colleague O’Mara had said earlier about thinking now about the skills that would be needed in the coming years and decades.

If what is needed is “having those skills embedded across all government functions, how are we actually taking proactive steps towards achieving that?” she asked. “A lot of the conversation so far has been about how we bring skills into government and how we compete with the private sector. But I think a big part of the conversation is how do we as government actually build those skills in younger age groups? How are we changing school curriculum? How are we incentivising people to study at university to actually develop the skills that will fill the gaps? Are we going to be achieving what we want to in 20 years with curriculums as they are at the moment?”

The lively discussion had around the table covered a lot of ground. But what was clear from all was that overcoming the challenge of a lack of digital skills in government would take a more strategic, holistic approach to workforce planning and a healthy balance of build, buy, borrow and bot. Everyone was in agreement that these four key levers are needed to attract talent. A step change is required to see how these are applied. 

About KPMG
KPMG firms have many years of experience of working with the public sector from national to local level so we know how organisations work. KPMG professionals understand the issues, pressures, and challenges you encounter in the journey to modernise. Drawing on KPMG firms’ government operations knowledge to offer methodologies tailored to help you overcome these challenges and work with you to deliver the results that matter.

KPMG teams start with the business issue before we help clients determine their preferred approach because we understand the ultimate mission. When the way people work changes, KPMG firms can offer client insight on leading training practices to help ensure your employees have the right knowledge and skills. KPMG in the UK is one of the largest learning providers in Europe, specialising in helping our clients build the skills and talent they need for future plans. With our Powered Government offering we provide a blueprint for a customer centric, digitally enabled public service organisation. KPMG firms are committed to helping clients create value, inspire trust, and help governments deliver better experiences to workers, citizens, and communities.

About Partner Content

This content is brought to you by a Global Government Forum, Knowledge Partner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *