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UK government needs 2,800 extra digital staff to deliver current plans

Head of the National Audit Office highlights risks from a 'digital capability' gap across Whitehall

The UK government needs to recruit 2,800 IT staff to meet demand for digital skills over the next five years, according to the head of the National Audit Office (NAO).

In a speech to the Institute for Government yesterday (21 July 2016), NAO chief Amyas Morse said the civil service is “over committed” due to £405bn of major projects currently under way. He highlighted in particular a “digital capability gap” that will cost hundreds of millions of pounds to address.

“When it comes to skills, today's civil service needs people who can carry out highly technical projects with large digital and behaviour change components,” said Morse.

“Government needs to find around 2,800 staff with the digital skills to undertake its digital change projects over the next five years. If government managed to employ all of the digital specialists required as permanent civil servants, it would cost £213m to fill the gap. And it would be roughly double that in contract labour.”

Morse called on government to cut back on the number of major projects and to prioritise which need to be completed – especially with the extra workload ahead from negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union.

“If we are over-committed, we need to lighten the load – and that means stopping doing things. This can be done by not adding projects, or by cancelling existing ones,” he said.

“Prioritising is about making these choices intelligently. So we need to know how much scarce resource would be released by a particular decision and what consequences that decision would have elsewhere. Departments should routinely keep track of these priorities and recognise wider government needs when called on.”

Morse chose the Home Office project to procure a new £1.2bn emergency services network as an example of an initiative he felt could be could be delayed because it is “a relatively free-standing project and able to wait for a few years”.

“Brexit brings with it a completely new layer of unknowns and requirements. It will be a major upheaval for the public sector for years to come and it can fairly be described as an abnormal challenge,” he said.

“The government does recognise this, I think. Some of the machinery of government changes we have just seen imply an acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge. But we can already see the beginnings of existing activities being denuded of capability as civil servants are pulled away to Brexit-related activities.”

Every major Whitehall department is engaged in large-scale digital transformation projects, from the digital tax overhaul at HM Revenue & Customs, to Universal Credit at the Department for Work and Pensions, and a longstanding digital change programme in the Ministry of Justice – as well as many others.

The Government Digital Service was awarded £450m in 2015’s spending review to help lead digital change across Whitehall, but has struggled to recruit the digital skills needed to support its key projects.

An  NAO report in December 2015 said the digital skills shortage could have implications on planning of reform and transformation programmes. It showed 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.

Morse’s comments will raise questions about the capability – and perhaps the willingness – of the new government under prime minister Theresa May to commit to all those resource-intensive digital initiatives.

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