UK government admits lack of digital skills ‘holds back’ transformation as it sets out reform plan

By on 12/06/2022 | Updated on 13/06/2022
Minister Heather Wheeler delivers a keynote speech on the government's new digital strategy
Heather Wheeler, parliamentary secretary for the Cabinet Office, said that the government's new digital and data strategy would seek is to raise standards for at least 50 of the government’s top 75 identified services (Photo credit: Cabinet Office)

The UK government has unveiled a new digital transformation strategy that commits departments to delivering better public services, cutting costs and reskilling civil servants, but has acknowledged that a lack of digital skills could “prevent us achieving our ambitions” unless addressed.

The strategy, developed by Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) in the UK Cabinet Office, is intended to raise the quality of at least 50 of the government’s top 75 services, including through the development of single login system for government. Another key aim of the strategy is to upskill 90% of senior civil servants in digital capabilities.

Creating one login for government and building digital skills at scale for government are two of the six cross-government missions for 2025, which also include: transformed public services that achieve the right outcomes; better data to power decision-making; secure, efficient and sustainable technology; and a system that unlocks digital transformation.

Read more: Digital ID – what is it, why is it needed, and how are governments developing it

These missions are intended to meet the government’s vision that it will be “a transformed, more efficient digital government” by 2025 that will:

  • “Exceed public expectations” by creating user-centric policies and public services that are more efficient, fit for the digital age, centred on user needs and deliver the right outcomes.
  • Equip civil servants for a digital future by upskilling civil servants in digital capabilities and digital delivery, with access to the right data and tools to do their jobs effectively.
  • Enhance government efficiency and security by creating a more joined-up and efficient government that uses common building blocks to deliver services quickly, cheaply and securely.

Setting out the strategy, Cabinet Office minister Heather Wheeler said it would “improve the way government operates to create a more efficient and effective digital government.

“We have developed a coherent, joined-up roadmap for digital transformation that has been created collaboratively across government,” she said.

Wheeler added that while “the appetite for digital transformation in government is enormous” the challenges are “just as large”.

Read more: Digital’s vital role in public services ‘more recognised post-COVID’, says senior UK official

New rules of recruitment

Skills are highlighted as a particular challenge in the plan, which stated: “We need to address the skills gap that we see at all levels of the civil service and compete more effectively with the private sector for skills, or our lack of skills will continue to hold us back and prevent us achieving our ambitions.”

The plan has set aims to both improve the skills of existing civil servants and help recruit skills from outside government. It has pledged that over 90% of senior civil servants will be upskilled on digital and data essentials, with learning embedded into performance and development standards, and that 90% of DDaT professionals will undertake DDaT related training at least once a year.

It also stated that departments would “strengthen their offer to existing and prospective talent” and Joanna Davinson, executive director at CDDO, said the government’s priority areas for recruitment included boosting apprenticeships under its early-years talent scheme, with a software graduate scheme, due to be launched later this year.

This comes despite the government’s recently announced plans to cut 91,000 civil service jobs and pause the fast steam civil service graduate recruitment scheme as part of an attempt to return civil service headcount to 2016 levels. It dovetails with the digital transformation strategy’s goal of lowering costs by reducing duplicated work within government and automating many manual processes.

Read more: UK civil service to shrink by 20% as PM Johnson slams ‘swollen’ Whitehall

A new era of collaboration

Earlier this year, the UK government produced a digital, data and technology playbook, which offered guidance on how to secure “better value for taxpayers and support job growth across the UK”.

To promote cross-pollination with the private sector, it urged teams within government to work with small and medium sized businesses on innovative solutions. In May this year, the government also set a new rule that requires senior-level vacancies across the civil service to be advertised externally. It is thought that this will help its digital transformation strategy by “broaden[ing] expertise in senior posts and open opportunities to people outside of London”.

Thomas Beautyman, deputy director of government digital capability at the Cabinet Office, said at the launch of the strategy that CDDO would carefully evaluate when to approach the external market for digital skills, and when to source those skills internally.

“We’re examining what the opportunity is for us to develop from within the civil service more of these [digital] skills – to bring brilliant, high-potential colleagues in from across all professions to our bit of government,” he said.

Read more: Minister who oversaw UK civil service job cuts ‘set to lead governance review’

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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. Gavin Dollin says:

    There is a skills gap in government but that is not the problem. It’s the pay gap that makes it difficult to recruit and retain staff in the DDAT profession. A graduate programme may help as will annual training for existing staff but, it is more likely to prepare them for jobs in the private sector on better terms and conditions and pay. I’m afraid the constant attack by ministers on the Civil Service now means that accepting lower pay in return for stability, good pensions and a better work environment just isn’t a realistic proposition any more. Until that changes, this strategy is doomed to failure.

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