Civil servants believe government departments lack skills to achieve "digital by default"

Just 36% of civil servants in central government believe their departments have the skills needed to achieve its "digital by default" strategy

Just 36% of civil servants in central government believe their departments have the skills needed to achieve its "digital by default" strategy, according to a survey.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) estimates it will save £1.8bn per year moving offline services to digital channels, and thereby becoming digital by default.

But only a third of civil servants questioned believe this is a possibility owing to a lack of skills within government departments.

Additionally, only 26% of civil servants are seeing progress being made in the digital agenda, while 28% of IT staff are not even aware of digital IT-led projects.

The government is halfway through its two-year project to digitise 25 of the most used government services and move them online.

The ambitious project kicked off in January 2013, allowing 400 working days to complete the transformation of 25 services from visa applications to benefit claims, which were identified as the first “exemplars” to be redeveloped. By the end of the 400-day period, the 25 exemplars should be live or in the last stage of public testing.

But Georgina O’Toole, director at analyst TechMarketView, told Computer Weekly that resources and skills may slow the whole project down. “GDS appears to be quite stretched,” she said.

With government budgets tightening, O’Toole said GDS and departments could do with more resources to achieve their goals.

The transformation of digital services requires fresh blood, new ideas and fresh thinking, but O’Toole said she was not sure how easy that will be to achieve.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has recently announced plans to recruit 50 digital specialists in the north-east England to work in a digital centre, and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has launched a “digital academy”, but some observers question whether other departments will be able to recruit or train skilled staff on this scale.

The research by Unify surveyed almost 2,500 central government civil servants, from key departments such as the Ministry of Defence, HMRC, Defra and DWP.

But only 40% feel they are receiving clear leadership within their department with regards to digital by default.

Meanwhile, 14% of the civil servants surveyed across central government are happy with the speed at which new technology is rolled out in the public sector – a figure that rises to 20% within the IT department.

Those surveyed felt the civil service is failing to provide the key elements of the modern workplace, such as access to information, applications and mobility. Only 24% can share information efficiently using the current technology available, while 5% have access to the applications and tools needed to do their jobs.

Additionally, 46% of civil servants consider the IT security restrictions on government systems to be a major barrier to productivity.

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And the solution is ..... to give career civil servants the skills to do the job themselves. I have now been in the industry for over 40 years and the one constant is that it is very much easier to give users the skills to develop, test, implement and run their own "apps" than to give techies the understand to develop "apps" that genuinely meet user needs.

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The question of whether civil servants can make these 25 schemes work work is largely moot, as that will not overcome the problem of technologically-illiterate end-users - the public.

There's no getting away from the fact that a large proportion of the population wants nothing to do with computers, or the Web.

True, there will be some who want them but can't afford them - should they be provided free? My feeling is no. Not because I struggled to pay for my computers, software and all the other odds and sods over the past 20-odd years, plus dial-up and now broadband Web access, out of my disability benefit, and taught myself, because I could (many people can't), but because the cost goes way beyond just giving people cheap computers and printers when they have no idea what to do with them.

They need to be trained in at least the basics. Who pays for that? And there's nothing worse than a clueless newbie when it comes to rendering a computer unusable - who pays for the fix? Repeatedly! Who pays for their broadband? Printer ink, even? Most of us don't think twice about that, but an extended-use black cartridge is a hefty chunk out of JSA. Paper? Hardware upgrades when Windows sprouts a new version or an old version is killed off?

For someone without a job all chose costs will be unsustainable.

There's another reason why we shouldn't be dishing out free computers - at a time when the deranged policies of IDS are making it impossible for many sick and disabled people to pay their way, or even keep a roof over their heads, the very idea of such freebies is obscene.

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