Patryk Kosmider -

Elected officials' lack of digital skills affects public services

A lack of digital skills and tech expertise among elected officials encourages government to contract out IT work instead of building up internal capacity, making the public sector increasingly reliant on outside knowledge to get things done

Government spending on tech contracts is huge. Eighteen of the UK government’s 40 biggest private sector "strategic suppliers" are technology or telecoms companies – almost the same as every other sector combined – offering everything from cloud infrastructure to mobile contracts. 

According to one conservative estimate by research group Tussell, those 18 companies alone made over £5.8bn in revenue from public sector contracts in 2020-2021 (the last shared data), or 4% of all money spent by the public sector. And the figure is rising each year.

But despite all that investment, a lack of technology expertise among elected officials is holding back the improvement of digital public services, which rely on a handful of civil servants with the skills and knowledge necessary to run and maintain the underlying computer systems. 

The result is that the UK government's tech capabilities – at every level from Whitehall to local councils – are slow, out of date, and generally failing to deliver for the people who use digital public services.

The lack of digital skills from the top down also means tech projects end up being contracted out, which parliamentary reports have found emphasises cost minimisation over achieving the best outcomes for citizens. 

Change starts at the top

“The starting point has to be a Prime Minister that has the belief and cares about having this. In any form of change of machinery of government, it has to start from the top and be the number one priority of government,” says Benedict Macon-Cooney, chief policy strategist at the Tony Blair Institute think tank.

Citing the government’s artificial intelligence (AI) and vaccine task forces, he adds that while these groups managed to do innovative work, this was only because they had been given the support, funding and freedom by leadership to do so.

“Some of this is about the backgrounds of people before they get into government,” Macon-Cooney says. “If you’re working in technology you’re earning more than you would in politics.”

We need to look at how we can help improve the skill level, awareness and understanding of technology and data among leaders, elected or not, because it's so fundamental to how organisations can succeed
Jason Kitcat, Department for Business & Trade

Of the 541 MPs with higher education degrees in the 2015-2017 Parliament, only 93 (17%) held degrees in science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. In fact, by one count, six subjects - politics, history, law, economics, philosophy and English - made up two-thirds of all degree backgrounds after the last election.

And while it’s true that MPs are expected to work across huge briefs not just jobs or subjects they’re specialised in, research for the British Politics journal in 2021 found that MPs with a background in STEM are more likely to engage with science and technology issues in Parliament.

“Most elected officials are not going to be technological experts. They will hear stuff and have suppliers. What they need is good advice and not people who just say yes,” said Jason Kitcat, director of digital, data & technology at the Department for Business & Trade, at a recent event.

“Long term we need to look at how we can help improve the skill level, awareness and understanding of technology and data among leaders, elected or not, because it's so fundamental to how organisations can succeed in the modern day.”

And the danger here, according to several of the experts Computer Weekly spoke to, is that seeing digital skills as a niche specialism – rather than something that is integrated into everything you do – means those capabilities get ostracised in small teams and ultimately don’t influence overall decision-making. 

“A key thing for those running services is that the technology your system runs on, to all intents and purposes, is the service. The two are no longer indistinguishable,” says Dave Briggs, who has worked as a digital leader at several councils, writing recently in a blog. “The days of managers shrugging and saying, ‘I don’t do technology’ or similar, really ought to be over.”

Contracting out over building in

According to many people Computer Weekly spoke with, the lack of digital leadership at the top of government is having downstream effects on the civil service, as it means the balance tends towards expanding its outsourcing operation over building up internal capacity. 

One civil servant described his department struggling to manage its IT systems because there were so few people who knew how to manage it, and most were private contractors.

report recently finalised by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which looked at digital transformation efforts in Whitehall, highlighted a number of failures with the government’s gargantuan tech outsourcing regime. 

Labelling the system “inflexible” and accusing departments of failing to “precisely define and scope their requirements”, it concluded that the government and contracts end up "focusing on cost minimisation rather than best outcome”.

Read more about digital skills in the public sector

The report also found the number of digital, data and technology professionals in the civil service is around 4.5% of all staff, noting this was less than half the number it needs compared to the private sector average of 8-12%.

The committee also found that only 10 of the government’s top 75 services are at a "great" standard. Some 45 require significant improvement, when assessed for how easy they are for people to use and how efficiently departments are providing them.

Thanks to budget cuts, not only had departments been failing to bring in enough digitally skilled staff to improve systems, but actually in many cases had been cutting back on roles. 

“The expertise is too concentrated in too few hands, both privately and in the public service,” says Meg Hillier, Labour MP and PAC chair. “We’re not shy on the committee to say that you need to sometimes use a consultant or specialist, but that you should very quickly onboard and ingrain the learning. So they don’t disappear with the knowledge.”

Highlighting the current situation for the state pension – where errors in pension payments were repeatedly being missed - Hillier adds that only a “handful” of staff at the department know how to handle the computer system that manages the payments, so it was a huge struggle to ever fix errors. “It is not a way a modern system should be working,” she adds. 

Structural issues

The potential risk here is - similar to the hypothesis put forward by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington in their recent book The Big Con on private outsourcing and consultancy - that by procuring skills from elsewhere, institutional knowledge is increasingly stripped away from departments leaving them unable to perform basic functions themselves and totally reliant on private firms. In essence, the government risks becoming a captive consumer.

There have been efforts to address this, but it’s not without flaws. Back in 2021, the government established the Central Digital and Data Office to help lead a digital revolution in Whitehall. But the unit has struggled to gain funding and prominence, with one National Audit Office report concluding that its “small budget and headcount are already affecting the intended reforms to government central functions’ treatment of digital programmes”.

Meanwhile in March of this year, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities ran an executive education programme on digital transformation for local council leaders in an effort to help "deliver modern digital public services". Although the Amazon-sponsored event did not touch on risks posed by excess procurement, some participants did stress the need for senior officials to get to grips with the basics of technology.

Not everyone sees the same issues with procurement. “I think we should be very comfortable with procuring this way, in the same way that if you're building a national airline, you would buy a plane from Boeing and Airbus, rather than try and build a plane yourself,” says Macon-Cooney.

The real problem, he says, is that private companies' role in government services is a “a bit piecemeal” as it stands and isn’t the kind of deep partnerships needed.

Microsoft, one of the government’s main digital strategic suppliers, even paid for a sponsored article in the Financial Times calling for Westminster to “equip the public sector with digital skills for better government”.

Some of the challenge, according to those Computer Weekly spoke with, is not simply a lack of will or knowledge, but the very structure of how politics operates in the UK. 

The challenge is that the kind of “slow politics” , as Hillier puts it, needed to reform Whitehall takes a long time and has to survive and be funded for years and often across multiple administrations before it comes to fruition. That can feel very at odds with the short election cycles and need for demonstrable results that can often define politics, especially with an election looming.

“No one is going to put it in the manifesto,” as Hillier explains it. “No voter is going to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm going to vote for them because they're going to have digital transformation in Whitehall’.”

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