UK civil servants highlight barriers to digital transformation in government

By on 01/12/2022 | Updated on 01/12/2022
An illustration of people using digitial technology

Officials in the UK government have named legacy technology, budget constraints and a lack of training as the top barriers to transforming government services in exclusive Global Government Forum research.

The UK Civil Service Digital Skills Report found that half of officials name legacy technology that is no longer fit for purpose (50%), and budget constraints/lack of funding (50%) as the top issues when asked what is significantly holding them back from using digital to improve public services.

Other significant factors highlighted by the 1,006 respondents to the survey included a lack of fit-for-purpose civil service funded training opportunities, and a lack of knowledge at the strategic level in government.

These factors were shared across different groups of respondents in the survey, which covered those working in the senior civil service, those who are members of the digital, data and technology (DDaT) and IT professions in government, and those working on digital transformation projects.

Read in full: Exclusive insight into how UK civil servants rate their digital skills

Indeed, the officials who work on digital transformation projects felt the problem particularly acutely, with higher proportions raising the top issues. Nearly two-thirds (63%) raise legacy technology as an issue, followed by 61% who say that budget constraints/lack of funding is. Half of those working on transformation programmes also say that a lack of skills is a problem in that they are unable to hire qualified talent (50%).

The survey, which was supported by Google Cloud, also asked civil servants to rate their own digital skills. The highest area of skill rating was in collaborating remotely in real-time with colleagues, where 95% of officials said that they had at least intermediate skills, the highest individual skill rating in the survey.

Other areas where civil servants report strong skills include accessing and analysing data in spreadsheets, where four out of five (83%) say they have at least intermediate skills – rising to 86% among senior officials, 92% of those working on digital transformation projects, and 94% of DDaT and IT professionals. A similarly large proportion of officials overall (84%) say they have at least intermediate skills in data compliance and security – a vital skill that holds the key to the public’s trust in the work of government – a proportion which again rises for senior officials (84%), those working on digital transformation projects (90%), and DDaT and IT professionals (95%).

However, the ratings declined in other key areas of modern public service delivery such as data access and analysis, or use of cloud infrastructure. For example, over a third of respondents say they have very few or no skills or knowledge in how artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation can be deployed to improve public service delivery (37%) and implementing, deploying, migrating, and/or maintaining applications on cloud infrastructure (39%). In both cases this is a higher proportion than those who say they have intermediate, advanced or highly specialised knowledge in these areas, which was 30% of respondents for both of these important areas.

The report also found that civil servants are keen to develop their digital skills, with over three-quarters (78%) of civil servants stating that they would like to receive more digital skills training. However, nearly one in five (19%) report they have not received internal or external training within the last two years.

Responding to the report, Megan Lee, the chief executive of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and head of the UK government’s DDaT function, said that she was thrilled to read in this report that over 75% of civil servants would like to receive more digital skills training, adding: “CDDO is rising to meet this demand through the plans set out in our Transforming for a digital future: 2022 to 2025 roadmap for digital and data”.

She added: “I’m pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this civil service digital skills survey. As chief executive of the UK government’s Central Digital and Data Office, I don’t underestimate the challenges we face when it comes to attracting and retaining top of the market digital talent in a fiercely competitive environment, or the benefits that could be reaped for the public if we are to succeed in building digital skills at scale.

“In an increasingly challenging external environment, the civil service will need to work smarter and faster to deliver great services to the public, and to deliver policies that are precise and impactful. Only through leveraging the power of digital and data can we do that. This will take concerted cross-government effort and focus to make the type of progress we can be proud of, and we too welcome the expertise of industry leaders, like Google, who set the bar for the types of digital services we aspire to equal.”

Adam Stewart, the head of public sector, UK&I at Google Cloud, said the report demonstrated “the growing appetite for digital skills training across both technical and non-technical professions”.

He added: “Whilst we set about meeting these complex and ambitious goals, it is also very important to recognise the skills and innovation that currently exist. From the acceleration of digital transformation necessitated by the pandemic, to leading transformation initiatives such as delivering the UK’s first digital-first census, pockets of brilliance are easy to identify, and have set the bar high.

“We want to support government to create a standard that all are able to access and achieve, and build a programme of skills development, training and career opportunities for all civil servants.”

Following the research, Google Cloud has also launched its first ever industry consultation on digital skills across the civil service, with the goal of understanding where the industry is today as the starting point to create the digital skills training and awareness needed for government.

Read in full: Exclusive insight into how UK civil servants rate their digital skills

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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