Analysis

Does the government need 8,000 IT staff?

Kathleen Hall

Despite the government having outsourced the majority of its IT delivery, research by Computer Weekly has revealed that Whitehall still has 8,000 in-house IT staff. 

With public sector IT spending under growing scrutiny, does the taxpayer get value for money from the IT departments running central government?

Consider a few facts that may put the government’s 8,000-strong in-house IT workforce into perspective:

  • Facebook, which supports 800 million users worldwide, employs just 3,200 people -less than half the number of IT professionals employed by all of Whitehall.
  • Central government has outsourced approximately 70% of its IT roles, according to Whitehall sources. 
  • Surprisingly, this is believed to be is also the first time an IT staffing figure has been calculated for central government, as the Cabinet Office has never measured the number of staff working on client-side IT.
  • The Ministry of Defence alone has 2,746 staff working on IT.
  • The IT staff numbers could be even higher as not all 23 departments sent Freedom of Information requests by Computer Weekly included IT professionals working for associated government agencies in their response.

The staffing figures raise a number of questions: why does the government have such a poor reputation for technology innovation despite having a large IT workforce; are IT staffing resources being used effectively; and will it need to maintain so many client-side IT staff as it moves toward a commodity, cloud-based approach?

Government sources estimate that total average employment costs, including pensions, benefits and workplace accommodation spend, per IT worker is around £60,000 per year, which means Whitehall could be spending around £500m on IT staffing costs every year. If this figure is extrapolated across the whole of the public sector, total staffing costs for IT could be as high as £6bn.

Although the government appears to have a large IT workforce, it has been heavily criticised for lacking the in-house skills to effectively implement IT.

According to a Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report last year: Government and IT - a recipe for rip-offs, the weakness in the way government exploits IT was highlighted as a key factor for the “obscene” amount of money it has wasted on IT.  

The PASC analysis noted government has outsourced thinking about IT along with the delivery of IT. The report also asked how the government could cut costs if it doesn't know what it's spending in the first place.

But as large system integrators have also come under increasing attack for their dominance of public sector IT projects and the scale of IT failures, measuring the value delivered by government IT staff could create an opportunity to regain control of how Whitehall uses technology - not to mention improving recognition of the value those IT professionals provide. 

Philip Virgo, chair of information alliance group EURIM, said 8,000 IT staff should be a sufficiently critical mass to enable the government to get good value from developing IT in-house.

“I am a firm believer in the fact that government outsources far too much, and that in-house development is a far better way of delivering value,” he said.

“If we were to retrain those individuals in handling open source software with the latest rapid development techniques we should be able to get a really good set of operations going, because we’ve got the numbers there. That’s something we could do in parallel with the transition of systems on to the G-Cloud and cross-fertilise expertise to get extra value,” he said.

Virgo's views can be supported by comparison with some areas of local government. According to Computer Weekly's research, most Whitehall departments have about 2% of their total workforce employed in IT functions. However, such a figure is high when compared with a large authority such as Essex County Council which has around 1.5% of its workforce employed in IT roles but uses an almost entirely in-house IT model.

The government  acknowledges that to adopt the new approaches and technologies set out in the government ICT strategy it must improve the capability of its IT staff. 

“There is a knowledge and skill deficiency across government which needs to be addressed. This is one of the key drivers behind the ICT Capability Strategy published in October 2011,” said a Cabinet Office spokesman.

John Serle, director at public sector IT professionals body Socitm, has been conducting research into the number of IT staff in local government for 20 years. He believes central government has systematically failed to measure staff numbers and the value derived from outsourcing roles.

“Speaking to the Cabinet Office and NHS, they don’t seem to know the total number of IT staff they have. In the same way when giving evidence to the select committee they didn’t know how much was spent on IT, the measurement of IT staff also doesn’t seem to be very important to them,” he said.

Central government has a tendency to work in silos, which has led to the duplication of IT roles, said Serle.“There are far too many IT people employed in the services side of the business. It has been a people-intensive business for a long time and is absolutely crying out for further automation. We have been saying for some time that there are far too many IT staff,” he said.

Many IT chiefs in government are serious about changing the way IT is procured from an outsourced model managed by a handful of system integrators, to a plug-and-play commodity approach through mechanisms such as the G-Cloud framework.

Home Office IT director Denise McDonagh recently told Computer Weekly: “I can never see big contracts with system integrators, where they deliver a whole host of services, happening again.”  If such an approach were adopted across government it would fundamentally disrupt traditional IT practices, and arguably result in fewer IT staff managing clunky bespoke services.

However, such a move will also accelerate the need for new types of skills, meaning that the government’s IT workforce could be retrained and redeployed in new roles.  

Calculating the value derived from its IT functions – both in-house and outsourced - is a step the government must take if it is to cut IT costs and become a more efficient provider of IT. 

A pan -government review of IT roles led by the Cabinet Office could benchmark the percentage of IT outsourced and in-house across departments and lead to cost-cutting through shared services, as well as becoming a starting point to plan for desperately-needed new IT skills. 

In such a cash-strapped environment as the public sector, opting to remain ignorant of its own IT roles is not a choice the government can afford to make any longer.  


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