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Civil servants want more digital skills training, survey finds

Civil servants are keen to learn more about how to use technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) to improve public services, yet only 5% have received AI training

The majority of civil servants would like to develop their digital skills, but one in five have not received any digital skills training in the past two years, according to a cross-government survey.

The survey by the Global Government Forum, which polled around 1,000 civil servants, culminated in a report on the UK civil service’s digital skills. It found that while 78% of all respondents would like more digital skills training, some don’t feel confident in their own or in their department’s digital skills.

While nearly all civil servants believe technology is “key to unlocking public sector transformation” and are committed to innovating the way services are delivered, only 60% believe they have an intermediate, advanced or highly specialised skills and knowledge of how technology and data can transform services.

“And there is lower confidence among officials that their department has the tools, resources and skills necessary to utilise technology in transforming the public services they deliver,” the survey found.

“Limited understanding of more advanced technologies is hampering ambitions to make better use of digital and civil servants need to know what advanced technologies are, to know if they can be useful.”

The skills base is particularly low when it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). A third of those surveyed said they have very few or no skills or knowledge in how AI, machine learning and automation can be used to improve public services. This may be because only 5% of civil servants have received any training in AI or machine learning, according to the report.

“Less than a quarter of civil servants agree that their department has the necessary skills and expertise in AI or machine learning,” the report added.

In a blog post, Megan Lee, CEO of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), said the CDDO’s vision is that the UK government will be transformed into an efficient digital government by 2025, of which a key part is ensuring all civil servants are equipped with “the capability and tools for a digital future”.

“I don’t underestimate the challenges we face when it comes to attracting and retaining top of the market digital talent in a fiercely competitive environment, or the benefits that could be reaped for the public if we are to succeed in building digital skills at scale,” she said.

Lee added that the government is aiming to upskill at least 90% of civil servants on digital and data essentials, and has launched a digital and data essentials standard, a “core set of capabilities that all civil servants should strive to have”.

Legacy technology and procurement issues

The survey also found that civil servants believe digital transformation is held back by legacy technology, budget constraints and a lack of training opportunities, with those surveyed believing that “legacy technology that is no longer fit for purpose” and budget constraints are among the key barriers.

“These two areas – along with concerns over a lack of fit-for-purpose civil service funded training opportunities – were the top factors when officials were asked what single action their department or organisation should undertake to improve its ability to use technology to innovate and transform public services,” the report said.

Procurement is also an issue, with nearly half of digital, data and technology (DDaT) procurement officials saying that procurement is holding back transformation, and only one in five of those involved in DDaT procurement have received any technology procurement training in the past two years.

“Improving the quality of purchasing for government is a major way this can be addressed, but respondents involved in the procurement process for DDaT highlight that they view procurement as a bigger barrier to transformation than the overall group,” the report said.

Read more about government and digital skills

  • 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.
  • The government has released a whitepaper detailing plans for skills reforms to encourage lifelong learning, including making digital skills more easily accessible for adults.
  • Councils in Scotland still suffer from a lack of digital skills among staff despite progress during the pandemic.

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