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Government needs to build digital skills, says Civil Service Group director-general

Building digital capabilities and common services are key to the future of the civil service, according to Tracey Waltho, director-general of the Civil Service Group

The civil service can create better and more efficient services through the use of digital technologies, according to Civil Service Group director-general Tracey Waltho.

Speaking at the Public Sector Show, Waltho outlined the government’s Civil Service Vision 2020, highlighting the need for growing digital skills across central and local government.

The vision consists of four pillars, including improved outcomes, effective leadership and skilled people. “It’s about changing how we work,” said Walto, adding that changes in government and the upcoming challenges with Brexit bring about a “critical opportunity to build capabilities in digital, commercial and leadership” across the civil service.

“Our focus is on improving digital and management capabilities,” she said, adding that the civil service was sometimes known for “being generalist”, which means building significant expertise in the sector is key.  

The government’s transformation strategy, which was published earlier this year, focused on five areas: transforming back-office technology; increasing skills; improving IT; better use of data; and shared platforms. 

Waltho said there was still a lot to do in government departments to take advantage of new technologies, as many still relied on old legacy systems, but the drive to do so was there.

The civil service has spent decades working in silos and departmental structures. Waltho said bringing people from departments together in one space could help create more efficient services, focused on user needs, rather than being specific to a certain department.

Commenting specifically on Gov.uk Verify, the government’s identity assurance platform, which aims to become a standard way to identify citizens, Waltho said it could “revolutionise the way local authorities provide services”.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has estimated that local public services could save up to £500m a year by using government as a platform (GaaP) services such as Gov.uk Verify and Gov.uk Notify. This includes £12m in annual savings from residents using Verify to apply for blue badges, a scheme which is currently being piloted with Warwickshire County Council. 

Verify was also included in the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto, promising to continue the roll-out of the platform. 

However, critics have been sceptical of the future of Verify as uptake of the service remains low. A National Audit Office report, published earlier this year, said Verify had been “undermined by its performance” and claimed GDS had “lost focus on the longer-term strategic case for the programme”. 

“Reduced take-up means Verify will need to be centrally funded for longer, and reduces the incentive for the identity providers to lower their prices over time,” the NAO said. “It is not clear how or when GDS will determine whether continuing with Verify will achieve projected benefits.”

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