Tech talent urged to ‘give working for government a go’ as UK seeks to boost skills

By on 26/11/2023 | Updated on 29/11/2023
Alex Chisholm speaking at a REFORM event at the BT Tower in London
Photo: Jack Aldane

Technology graduates have been urged not to let a lack of familiarity with government operations hold them back from working to deliver public services by one of the UK government’s most senior civil servants.

Speaking to Global Government Forum shortly after giving a keynote speech at an event hosted by think tank Reform, Alex Chisholm said next generation tech talent are unaware of how their skills can help transform the public sector.

This lack of familiarity poses a bigger barrier to talent acquisition than other elements such as low trust in institutions, he said.

Chisholm – who is Cabinet Office permanent secretary and chief operating officer of the UK civil service – encouraged specialists in artificial intelligence, data operations, software engineering and other related fields that the “best thing to do” if they were unsure of whether working for government was for them was to “try a bit of it”.

“I would urge [young talent] to overcome any inhibitions they have [and] give it a go. I’ve talked to a lot of our recent joiners [on the UK civil service internship scheme], and people find the work we do incredibly interesting,” he said, adding that “the public mission, and the impact of data and technology on helping to deliver that mission today, could not be more important”.

Responding to a question put to panellists by GGF at the event, Daljit Rehal, chief digital and information officer of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), said government needed to absorb new skills from fresh starters, rather than demand skills it already uses. He said that until recently, departments expected computer science graduates to complete a three-month training course to be able to code in a script compatible with the UK government’s proprietary Oracle system.

“We’ve been guilty of ignoring what they’ve brought with them,” Rehal said.

“What I would say to a young graduate is: ‘I want you to change me and my organisation by using what you’ve learned. If you’ve learned to code in Python… show me and the rest of my team what we’ve been missing out on’.”

Read more: UK government aims to tackle public service administration burden

Cutting admin with AI

In his keynote, Chisholm said innovations such as generative AI had the potential to reduce the burden of admin on government departments.

On 20 November, chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced plans to cut the volume of administrative tasks after a review by the Treasury showed such tasks take some frontline public sector workers one day out of every week to complete.

Hunt added that bringing down the admin burden would require government to “safely introduce new technology like AI” in a bid to deliver “happier workforces, better public services and a stronger economy”.

The government’s plans to use technology to improve services and solve workforce challenges were outlined in Hunt’s Autumn Statement on 22 November.

AI ‘crack squad’ announced

The previous day, the government announced it had allocated £5m (US$6.2m) for a unit whose remit would be to support the use of AI across the civil service.

The Incubator for AI is expected to help shrink the government workforce, which has increased since 2016 as a result of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oliver Dowden, the UK’s deputy prime minister, said at a press briefing on 20 November that the unit represented “a transformative tool to… enhance the pace of technology in a way that can help us deliver better outcomes with fewer inputs, and ultimately, that should be able to save taxpayers money”.

The incubator is expected to be staffed by up to 30 people and will focus on welfare fraud, the UK’s asylum backlog, health, education services, and civil service reform.

“This is about trying to get a hit squad, crack squad that is going to go out there and actually bring a high level of expertise to try and identify innovative solutions to projects,” Dowden said.

Read more: AI-generated documents ‘key to improving NHS productivity’

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

One Comment

  1. Cynic Servant says:

    I wish the Cabinet Office the best of luck in recruiting a “crack squad” with “a high level of expertise” in Artificial Intelligence, when they tell potential applicants about the Cabinet Office’s mandatory 60% office attendance policy that was introduced last week.

    See e.g.

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