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Public sector aims to close digital skills gap with private sector

Digital leaders from the public sector have stressed the need to build up the digital skills and capabilities of civil servants to successfully deliver the government’s digital transformation ambitions, but not at the expense of supplier ecosystems

In-sourcing digital skills and capabilities is key to fulfilling the UK government’s latest digital strategy, but must be balanced with continued public and private sector collaboration, according to senior civil servants.

Produced by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and published in June 2022, the digital strategy outlined the government’s three-year plan to transform public services, make better use of data, improve digital skills across the entire civil service, and ensure it uses technology sustainably.

Promising to deliver more than £1bn of savings by 2025 alongside “significant improvements” in online public services, the strategy placed a particular emphasis on increased collaboration between public organisations, and further outlined a “build once, use many times” policy to help reduce the duplication of digital transformation efforts across a fragmented public sector.

Speaking at TechUK’s Building the Smarter State event in London on 29 September, senior civil servants working at various levels of government stressed the need for digital skills and capabilities to be in-sourced to a much greater extent than they currently are.

Attracting talent and preparing for the future

According to Megan Lee, chief strategy and transformation officer at the CDDO, one of the key ways government can be made more efficient is by “in-sourcing skills and capabilities”, which she added can bring “huge financial benefits”.

The sentiment was shared by Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London, who said that reducing government spend on outside agencies for tech and data work can help solve the public sector’s digital skills shortage, as the money that goes to fulfilling expensive contracts can instead be used to train people up: “It basically pays for the investment itself, with some change, because those costs are gone.”

He added that his office has already been collaborating with the London Office of Technology and Innovation to map out which kinds of digital and data jobs public services will need in the future.

Lee further noted that although government has built a community of around 23,500 digital professionals over the past seven years across a range of areas, the proportion of digital government employees to non-digital employees (otherwise known as “digital density”) is still too low.

She said that part of the problem is the public sector's failure thus far to collectively figure out how to compete with the private sector in its ability to attract and retain talent.

Giving more specific figures, deputy director of government digital capability at the Cabinet Office, Thomas Beautyman, said that there were currently 3,867 vacancies for data and tech roles throughout the civil service. He added that while 4% of civil servants are in digital roles, the average throughout private sector organisations is 10%.

Beautyman added that by generally improving and scaling internal digital capabilities, it can also give public sector buyers a genuine choice over when to use specialist third-party technology providers, moving government away from the assumption to “always outsource”.

Speaking about the data challenges associated with digital transformation, Haroon Ahmed, commercial partner in data at public sector tech delivery firm Made Tech, said that while government generally has an abundance of data, he does not speak to many people in the public sector who really know how to access it and what they can do with it.

He added this is largely due to a “lack of skills in internal teams” and the fact that “training staff has not been a priority”, which has led to the public sector “failing to deliver on really simple things that are done quite easily, quite successfully, [and] on time in the private sector…there’s still a severe gap in knowledge and understanding that needs to be addressed.”

Chris Howes, chief digital information officer at Defra, the UK government department responsible for environmental protection, added that public sector upskilling would need to be broad, and that there needs to be a greater emphasis on building the digital skills of those that are not already employed in specialist tech or data roles.

However, while stressing the need for digital upskilling, Howes said that Defra still sees an ecosystem approach as the best delivery model: “You can’t possible retain the level of expertise that you need across various technology domains without the support of a really strong supplier ecosystem.”

This importance of suppliers was also stressed by civil servants from the Home Office, who took the view that digital transformation projects can only be delivered in partnership with an ecosystem of suppliers.

Speaking about public-private collaboration, Angela Essel, head of the Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Centre (JSARC), said the department’s role “is to partner with the private sector” and to ensure it is sending “the correct demand signals to the suppliers of security capabilities, so they’re able to develop and create the type of solutions we need”.

Toby Jones, head of accelerated capability environment (ACE) at the Home Office, added that while private sector organisations act as “enablers” for digital transformation efforts, government departments need to be more fluid in their relationships to external suppliers, “because no one organisation, in my experience, has all the solutions”.

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