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NAO Study Finds ‘Urgent’ Government Digital Skills Gap

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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At least 2,000 digital staff are needed within the next five years, and probably far more – and the private sector won’t be any help, the NAO warns

The government’s planning to provide itself with specialised skills isn’t keeping pace with the scale of the challenges that lie ahead, including the delivery of ever-more ambitious digital projects, requiring a more “urgent” response, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO’s “Capability in the Civil Service” report found that in addition to scarce project planning, benefits realisation and contract management skills, government departments say they will need an additional 2,000 digital staff within five years, at an annual cost of  between £145 and £245 million.
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Skills gap

However, the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) believe the short-term digital skills shortage may be much greater, the study found.

The changing expectations of both citizens and civil servants are putting pressure on government to deliver ever-more ambitious digital projects, but the skills needed to do so may be difficult to find – even from the private sector.

“Citizens’ experiences as consumers have led them to expect public services to be more individualised, and available digitally; they also expect to be kept up-to-date on progress,” the report found.

It cited HM Courts & Tribunals’ digitisation of the court system, allowing court papers to be filed online, and the Crown Market Place, intended to provide civil servants with an “Amazon-style” system for purchasing common goods and services.

But the skills need for such projects are in short supply, even in the private sector, something the government is not be fully taking into account.

“There is a risk that the civil service will assume it can simply acquire from the private sector the skills it needs for challenging projects,” the report said. “Project business cases need to address the risk that the skills will not be obtainable even from the private sector.”

The NAO found, for example, that about one in four senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in the post not being filled.

houses of parliamentUnprecedented challenges

In the meantime, the government continues to provide most of the public services it delivered before the beginning of cost reductions that have reduced the civil service by 26 percent since 2006, and with smaller budgets.

“At the same time there has been no reduction in the overall workload of the civil service, an increase in the number of infrastructure and capital projects, increasing demand for digital projects and the decision to leave the European Union,” it said.

The decision to leave the EU alone has been called ‘the biggest, most complex challenge facing the civil service in our peacetime history’ by the Cabinet Secretary, and means changes for most government departments, as well as the creation of two new departments, the NAO said.

It noted that as of February this year the civil service had created more than one thousand new roles in the new deparments to prepare for exiting the EU and negotiating new trade agreements, with two-thirds of the roles currently having been filled.

In the short term the government needs to improve its planning and prioritisation – and must be prepared to stop work on projects it isn’t confident it can deliver, said NAO head Amyas Morse.

“Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs,” he said. “It is making plans to do so but scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed.”

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