Staffing cuts add to digital skills shortages – report

Government estimates it has fewer than half the number of digital, data and tech professionals it needs

Posted 21 September 2023 by Christine Horton

Digital skills shortages in the civil service are likely to see increased risks and costs to government, according to a new report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In a report published last week, the PAC said a lack of digital expertise means “Whitehall is unable to genuinely transform its services, and can only make incremental upgrades. This risks increased costs in the long run, with Government continuing to run its services on ageing legacy systems.”

The number of digital, data and technology professionals in the civil service is around 4.5 percent, according to Government estimates. This is less than half the number it needs when compared to an equivalent industry average of between eight percent and 12 percent, meaning this number will need to double, said the PAC.

It added that pay constraints mean that government departments are unable to fully compete with the private sector in hard-to-recruit roles. The PAC’s inquiry heard of particular shortages of cybersecurity experts, whose skills command a premium.

The PAC also said it was disappointed to learn that some digital skills shortages “are self-inflicted through counter-productive staffing cuts.”

“Digital headcount has been rationed in Government departments – against the backdrop of a struggle to recruit and retain the necessary skilled people in a drive to double the civil service’s digital workforce,” it noted.

The report said that only 10 of government’s ‘top 75’ services are at a ‘great’ standard and 45 require significant improvement, when assessed for how easy they are for people to use and how efficiently departments are providing them.

“Services often lack a single point of accountability in a senior owner who could provide transparency on efficiency and effectiveness,” it said.

The PAC’s report calls for Departments to identify a suitably senior and experienced single owner for each government service.

Buy-in from senior leaders needed

A surprising finding of the PAC’s inquiry, it said, was that the requirement for senior leaders to have a better understanding of digital business has not been formalised. The PAC recommends that digital responsibilities, such as improving digital services and addressing the highest risk legacy systems, should be included in letters of appointment at the most senior levels in all departments.

“One of the hallmarks of the Digital Revolution has been rapid and accelerating change,” said Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee. “Our inquiry has found that Whitehall’s digital services, far from transforming at the pace required, are capable of only piecemeal and incremental change. Departments’ future-proofing abilities are hobbled by staff shortages, and a lack of support, accountability and focus from the top. In particular, a lack of cybersecurity experts should send a chill down the government’s spine.

“The government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them. Our inquiry leaves us unconvinced that these aims will be achieved in the face of competing pressures and priorities. Digital must not be treated merely as a sideline, but must sit right at the heart of how government thinks about delivery. Without swift and substantial modernisation, opportunities to improve services for the public will continue to be lost.”