Posted on December 18, 2015 by Yvonne Gallagher
Government’s austerity and reform agenda means delivering the same or better with less resource. This means changing fundamentally the way that public services are delivered; a goal which is proving challenging. Digital solutions are key to that transformation. But to succeed government needs the digital and technology (DaT) profession to have business change skills, as well as IT, technology and data skills, and these are in short supply, as our recent digital skills survey shows.
Civil service headcount has reduced by nearly one-fifth since 2010, and further cost reductions will be difficult without major service redesign. Digitally-enabled business transformation has the potential for the same profound effect on service delivery as we have seen in the commercial world. But it is widely acknowledged that the skills needed to achieve it are in short supply for everyone, across both public and private sectors. We recently published our survey report The digital skills gap in government, which looks at the situation in departments and agencies, and points to the broader, systemic issues that have to be tackled if government’s ambition to transform services is to be realised.
We’ve seen that skills and short-term leadership have become a common denominator in several problematic public sector IT projects. This was illustrated the day before we published our survey results, in our Early review of the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme – a programme dependent on combining the implementation of new IT systems with wider business transformation to improve how subsidies are paid to farmers. As this programme demonstrates, much more than technical skills are needed to move to true digital delivery of services, which goes well beyond building a website or IT front-end. Departments and agencies need to have a clear view of how their digital services will operate, a roadmap to get there, and sufficient capacity and capability to manage and deliver the transformation activities. In reviewing the CAP Delivery programme we commented that it “did not have the necessary skills in-house and did not know how to obtain them,… [that it] failed to recruit the necessary skills to the programme for a number of reasons, including pay levels, the location of the work … and problems with retention. The lack of these skills was a central cause of failure in March 2015.” The programme had four different senior leaders in the space of three years.
Two days after our survey results came out we also published our report on E-borders and successor programmes where we found similar problems. The E-borders programme has had eight senior leaders since 2003 and there had been a high turnover of more junior positions, with non-civil servants filling up to 40% of programme jobs. The Home Office has moved the project in-house, but with a limited track record of working on projects in-house, skills are a concern given the ambitions of the programme.
To achieve such wholesale transformation needs DaT skills well beyond IT. However, as our survey showed, it remains the case that although digital leaders themselves believe that a wide range of skills are needed, they think that their non-digital colleagues consider DaT skills in a more limited technical sense. This limited perception is partly responsible for inadequate skills-planning for digital transformation programmes.
Our reports and survey also show the need for government, as a whole, to be realistic about the number of digital programmes that can be implemented consecutively. Availability of the right skills must be part of the equation when prioritising major change programmes. The limited supply of skills – in the private, as well as public sector – was one of the most commonly given reasons in our survey for skills shortages.
A shortage of digital skills is not new and has its roots in IT skills shortages. Since 2005, Cabinet Office has taken a number of steps to lead and develop the ICT profession. Our review of the effectiveness of these initiatives, A snapshot of the Government’s ICT profession in 2011, highlighted slow progress and ongoing difficulties in professionalising ICT and introducing consistency across departments. Similarly, in January 2013, our report The impact of government’s ICT savings initiatives found that relevant skills remain a challenge across government, with the pace, breadth and depth of the change required by the Cabinet Office’s ICT reform initiatives opening up capacity and capability gaps across central government.
In our 2015 survey, DaT leaders said that the Cabinet Office’s and other initiatives were generally helpful, but not sufficient to address the shortfall. In 2013 and again in our 2015 survey, limitations in the use of contractors and salary caps were identified as key barriers to recruiting enough staff of the right calibre. This year the market conditions and supply of people with the right skills also stood out as crucially important.
Although 64% of DaT leaders think their organisation has the capacity to deliver digital transformation, a worrying 36% say they don’t. Of the latter, the main reasons given were lack of capability, capacity and leadership.
Given the challenges in filling the skills gap quickly, Government has to do more to prioritise attracting people to fill key gaps in digital skills, including key areas in cyber security and data analytics. And it has to find radical new ways to resource major programmes, such as through partnerships.
The NAO is intending to maintain its focus in 2016 on government’s journey of digital reform and is planning future blogs on this topic.About the author: Yvonne Gallagher is NAO’s digital transformation expert, focused on assessing the value for money of the implementation of digital change programmes. Yvonne has over 25 years’ experience in IT, business change, digital services and cyber and information assurance, including as CIO in two government departments and senior roles in private sector organisations, including the Prudential and Network Rail.
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