Left column


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 […]


Skills for digital transformation

Posted on December 18, 2015 by

Digital skillsGovernment’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.

Digital skills challengesOur 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.


Yvonne Gallagher

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.

Share this article on social media:


5 responses to “Skills for digital transformation”

  1. Developing complex computer systems is a branch of engineering and it needs mature, engineering methods that are based on sound science and that incorporate rigorous engineering disciplines of quality control. I have reviewed dozens of failed projects, across Government and industry, and most failures can be traced to the lack of these disciplines: inadequate requirements capture, informal management of change, use of design notations and programming languages that are ambiguous and ill-defined, and a believe in testing as the primary way to assure quality – when we have known for 40 years that testing can only show the presence of errors, and never the absence of errors.

    Developing software so that it is “correct by construction” is possible and cost-effective.”Test and Fix” is amateurish, expensive and ineffective.

    To see evidence for this, from the US Government NSA and from the NAS/CSTB, search for “Tokeneer” and for “certifiably dependable software”, on line.

  2. John Smith says:

    Very interesting blog. I agree with your view about the gap in this vital area, however I would suggest its wider than just IT. I work in construction and I believe the digital skills required effect all functional areas not just specialist domains like IT.

    This is s real issue that hasn’t been given enough exposure and will effect on driving effiencies within the private and public sectors.


  3. Steve Flood says:

    We seem to be in an cycle of idiocy wherein the people in charge are insufficiently educated to understand what is needed and are unaware that they are insufficiently educated.
    Perhaps if there was a required level of expertise for appointments to selection bodies, such as is found everywhere else in the world, we might obtain better results?

  4. Dr Alan Cleary says:

    Don’t agree. Weak management and unnecessary supervision just make it look like shortage. There is if anything a surplus of IT and Digital folk already, mainly sitting about waiting to be led by someone else. Making more will just solve the illusion of overwork from which the civil service, NHS and the HR industry are chronic sufferers dragging down the rest of us in the productivity stakes. No. Free them to get on and do things without meddling from bogus “managers. Just let them get going like Alan following Gall’s Law and few inhibiting rules.
    Alan declined financially more attractive options to follow a career ensuring the success of ten high profile public projects.
    He lived at Lytham next to the first large greenfield development undertaken by Bovis. Impressed by what he saw Alan made daily observer visits to the site. That showed him what a well run construction site ought to look like, making sensible use of assets and sequencing how the work should be done. After continuing visits there till completion, he spent much of the following summer at housing construction sites across the Netherlands to learn how Dutch counterparts routinely build 5 houses to our 4 using no greater amounts of materials and labour.
    At Bournemouth Council Alan worked as principal in the team creating new jobs locally at 11 times the national average.
    Then as Deputy Town Clerk he implemented the largest housing programme conducted at Carlisle which stretches 400 sq miles along the border with Scotland and ensured the award winning redevelopment of Carlisle City Centre which had been put off repeatedly for 15 years before his arrival through fear of the Roman foundations and underground infrastructure.
    Promoted to Leeds, when 10 authorities were being riveted together to form the best of our provincial cities, he delivered agreed legal, computing and employment creation objectives for the City. He helped manage its 100,000 properties, rectifying the dangerous defects identified in the 147 local tower blocks, whilst developing a groundbreaking apprentice scheme for lift maintenance specialists, then competing successfully to secure the market in lift maintenance for the 250 sq ml local area starting with the Bank of England. That income went towards defraying costs of tower block rectification.
    Junior in rank of a tight team of three determined professionals, Alan was chosen to negotiate Britain’s position on the Single Market in construction, civil engineering and infrastructure, it is said consistently outwitting a better qualified group of French experts.
    Before moving to manage private businesses in New York City, Alan produced good results for the median sized English District when the Council there had dispensed with all its previous Chief Officers.
    Whilst holding at the same time the 3 key posts of Chief Executive, Borough Solicitor and Director of Housing, Alan enabled the incoming Administration to reduce council taxes by 3% and the total debt he inherited by 90%, whilst implementing without increasing rents a full programme of comprehensive upgrading and improvements to all the social housing which had suffered 30 years of neglect before that.
    During his 11 year stay in New York City, Alan worked 6 years as the part time Volunteer Accountant in the Contracts Accounting and Audit sections of Belle Vue, the 27 storey public A and E hospital in midtown. Established in 1720 and with 3000 doctors now based there, by some counts Belle Vue treats a million patients a year… free for everyone unable to pay. Some 40 major advances in medicine originated at the hospital.
    Returning to London he has spent four years representing the government in appeal Courts and as volunteer Governor of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, then a further four as Principal, with a permanent staff of 3, of an ISI commended City Management College training international graduates for more senior roles overseas. He continues at a senior level with policy bodies and as an hon curator of an historic library .
    © 2014 Microsoft Terms Privacy & cookies Developers English (USA)

  5. sheetal says:

    hello! thank you for sharing such a nice post. will surely share this with my teammates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Right column

  • About the NAO blog

    Our experts share their views about issues and common challenges facing government, what public sector leaders should look out for and how organisations have addressed issues. Our posts draw together threads from across our reports, share secrets spilled in events and reveal our experts’ expectations for the future.

    We encourage comments that support the exchange of ideas for improvement, but ask that those posting are respectful of others.

  • Sign up for automatic feeds

    Sign up to receive email alerts:

    RSS IconSubscribe in an RSS Reader