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Government needs 2000 extra digital staff, says NAO

The current skills shortage means government will need to spend up to £244m annually on staff in digital roles to bridge the gap

The digital skills gap in the UK civil service means the government needs an extra 2,000 digital staff within five years, costing up to £244m annually, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The NAO report on capability in the civil service found that the government’s plans to address the skills gap are not “keeping pace with the growth of the challenges the civil service faces”.

The report said departments had reported it would need around 2,000 additional staff in digital roles, which the NAO estimates will cost £145m a year using civil servants and £244m a year using contractors.

However, those figures may fall below the actual needs of the civil service.

“The Government Digital Service (GDS) and Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) believe shortages for digital and project delivery skills will be far greater, particularly given the range of transformation and digital projects ahead,” said the report.

“Senior officials with responsibility for digital skills told us the extent of the capacity gaps that departments reported to us underestimates the scale of the capability problem.”

The government has been widely reliant on contractors across departments, particularly in digital roles. However, the IR35 reform coming into force in April 2017 is likely to reduce the amount of contractors in the civil service.

Read more about the skills gap

The regulations are being imposed to resolve tax avoidance, and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) aims to clamp down on contractors abusing the system by making public sector bodies treat them as salaried workers unless they can prove they conform to IR35 rules.

In an interview with Computer Weekly earlier this month, Home Office CIO Sarah Wilkinson said the reforms were likely to lead to disruptions of government IT projects.

A lack of in-house skills

Another issue is that government departments have long been reliant on large-scale IT outsourcing contracts, meaning that in-house skills have been sparse.

“Departments face a twin challenge of adopting new digital technologies and ways of working while building in-house IT capability that until recently were mostly outsourced,” said the report.

It added that to meet the requirements, “the civil service will need to recruit skills from outside the public sector”.

Navigating cultural challenges

The report also pointed to difficulties with large government IT projects, particularly relating to cultural challenges.

“Previous reports have pointed out the cultural challenge for specialists of combining successfully with departmental teams dominated by generalist, policy-oriented civil servants,” said the report.

“One of the starkest examples of how this can go wrong is the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and GDS failure to work effectively together on Common Agricultural Policy delivery."

One of the main reasons for the programme’s failure was a culture clash between GDS, Defra and the RPA.

A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the programme found that GDS, which was there to help deliver the programme, ended up obstructing its delivery.

“GDS was created to help improve IT projects, but instead hindered the delivery of this programme. In addition to delaying payments to farmers, programme costs have risen by 40%, and penalties from the European Commission are likely to increase significantly,” said the report.

Difficult to predict the future

It is also difficult to predict the scale of the skills issue, as it is “impossible to predict because they depend on ministerial priorities”.

Brexit also throws a spanner into the works, as departments “may need to reprioritise projects and fill skills gaps in coming years because of internal change programmes and external challenges such as exiting the European Union,” said the report.

NAO head Amyas Morse said the work of government is becoming more technical. “Continuing budgetary restraint is putting pressure on departments, and the decision to leave the EU means government will have to develop new skills and take on work previously done by others.”

“Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs. It is making plans to do so but scale of the challenge ahead means greater urgency is needed,” he said.

“Without a short-term solution to its capability gaps, government must get better at planning and prioritising its activities and be prepared to stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.”

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