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The digital education problem at the heart of government transformation
A recent NAO report on digital government highlights some progress and ongoing challenges – but Whitehall needs to tackle a more fundamental flaw if it’s to deliver true digital change
Two years ago, the National Audit Office (NAO) report into digital change in government made fairly grim reading. It documented many seemingly intractable issues government has experienced in trying to deliver “digital” (essentially, “technology”) initiatives at the programme level. For example, understanding of its aims, getting the commercial aspects right, tackling its vast legacy estate, building capability, and so on.
In March this year, the NAO published its follow-up report, Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency. While its tone is similarly critical, there is perhaps a note of optimism.
This time, the NAO focused on the efforts to date of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which was set up not long before its July 2021 report. The NAO assessed the CDDO’s progress in trying to reinvigorate a transformational narrative that had largely become moribund across government. About time, too.
Indeed, the NAO acknowledges that government’s “transformational” efforts to date have centred largely around “developing digital front ends” - “attempts [that] have often prioritised developing the citizen-facing elements of a service over tackling the more complex underlying issues posed by legacy systems and poor data quality”. I hate to say “told you so...”
Moving responsibility for government transformation from the Government Digital Service (GDS) - which had really always been a delivery shop at heart, not an engine for transforming government - and giving it to the new CDDO was a great idea, as was the CDDO’s roadmap, a genuine attempt to reinvigorate genuine structural digital transformation, as opposed to citizen-centric front ends.
The roadmap tries to establish some useful, if hugely overdue, baselines for transformation, including: a data-gathering exercise (“where’s everyone at?”); a single Gov.UK login; data quality; common standards; tackling legacy IT; addressing skills shortages; and leadership/influencing. So far, so good.
However, while the NAO notes some early progress against these objectives, the watchdog concludes by stressing – yet again – that government lacks the skills and expertise to deliver transformation at scale.
Let’s take a closer look at this “skills” thing. Worryingly, it appears that government is actually sliding backwards on this. It claims 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with between 8% and 12% industry average; that there has been a 20% reduction in digital, data and technology (DDaT) apprenticeships from 800 in October 2021, down to 637 in December 2022; and a 7% increase in government DDaT vacancies, from 3,900 in April 2022, to 4,100 in October 2022.
However, the skills problem is actually very much worse than stated, because these numbers only reflect some of the digital capabilities we need in government. There’s a critical difference between “tech skills” and “business expertise” in the context of digital transformation.
Why does this matter? The answer is that while a shortage of DDaT skills points to a worrying lack of oars to row the government’s digital ship, there’s also a widespread lack of experienced digital business leadership, which means that the ship itself is largely rudderless. There’s a general lack of vision, understanding and clear direction, about what it is that we’re trying to transform into in the first place.
This problem is partly due to a tendency to conflate these two concepts, in which the ability to understand the implications and opportunities of digital technology and data for a department’s purpose, services, structure and partnerships is often lumped together with technical skillsets, like for a cloud engineer or a scrum master.
I am reliably informed that the CDDO digital education offering at permanent secretary level in the civil service is about data standards, agile teamwork, infrastructure, user-centric design, and similar concepts. While these are undoubtedly important for permanent secretaries to understand, this is “training” rather than “education”. A crash course in GDS DDaT practices emphatically does not equip our leaders to direct the radical, digitally-enabled reshaping of our public services that we require.
I would not dream of basing my MBA Digital Business class at Exeter solely around technical skillsets (although we do cover them), since to focus on these alone would be failing to equip my students to lead in the digital era.
So why does government continue to fail to offer a decent digital business education to those we call upon to shape our complex public service landscape for an increasingly digital future?
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