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Government digital skills gap concerning, says NAO

Funding and pay is one of the biggest challenges to getting the right capabilities in place, an NAO survey has found

The civil service needs to secure the right skills and capabilities to deliver digital transformation programmes, a National Audit Office (NAO) survey has found.

The Digital skills gap in government report, which surveyed digital and technology leaders across government departments and agencies, found there “is a widespread acknowledgment” of the digital skills gap in Whitehall.

Government austerity and reform, which has led to a reduction in civil services headcount, has highlighted the need for a “digitally enabled business transformation” to achieve costs reductions through major service redesign.

However, the survey found that while several initiatives have been introduced to deal with the skills gap, there is an ongoing perception gap, where digital and technology professionals have a wider perspective of what is needed, “recognising the importance of business change, while others in their organisations have a more limited focus on IT and technology”.

This could have implications on planning of reform and transformation programmes, the survey said. It found that there are “not many digital and technology leaders in place”, and most of those have not been in their position for long, with 73% of the digital and technology leaders surveyed having been in their post for less than two years.

Short-term leadership and skills have become a common denominator in several problematic public sector IT projects.

Earlier in December 2015, an NAO report into the rural payments service found that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was expected to provide systems integration skills to bring the different elements of the programme together. However, it had limited experience in managing a group of smaller suppliers on a large IT programme and “did not have the necessary skills in-house and did not know how to obtain them”.  

The report also found that in the space of three years, the programme had four different senior leaders.

Similar problems were found in the NAO’s report into the failed Home Office e-Borders programme and its successor, which had eight senior leaders since 2003.

There had also been a high turnover of more junior positions, with non-civil servants filling up to 40% of jobs in the programme. The Home Office has moved the project in-house, but with limited track record of working on projects in-house, skills are a concern.

The skills gap survey said that the change required is complex and the civil service needs to secure different skills and capabilities.

“Funding, cultural issues, career paths and cross-government competition are all perceived to have a negative impact on developing staff and improving capability and capacity,” the survey found.

However, it added that the majority of leaders surveyed felt they are “breaking down the barriers between IT and business” and more than half of organisations plan to make less use of consultants and systems integrators in the next five years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, pay is seen as one of the main barriers to getting “experienced people skilled in integrating and transitioning from IT to digital”.

“Financial position and budgets, cultural issues, career paths and competing priorities have the largest negative effect on developing existing staff,” the report found, with funding and pay seen as the biggest challenges to developing capability and capacity.

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