Are we now leaving it to Microsoft to tackle the public sector digital skills crisis?

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan January 26, 2017
The UK government has a digital skills crisis on its hands that it's not facing up to. Step forward Microsoft to shoulder the burden. Good news, yes, but with troubling implications.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Ro...
Hammond and Rose

One of the major challenges facing the UK public sector when it comes to digital transformation is a basic lack of digital skills across the civil service.

Having spent decades outsourcing the need for such tech savvy to the big systems integrators, Whitehall now finds itself embarrassingly bereft of the necessary skills in-house to further its digital ambitions.

Step forward Microsoft which yesterday announced that it’s offered to train up 30,000 people across the public sector free of charge- and it’s an offer that’s been leaped upon by the government. According to Microsoft, the offer is intended to:

enable the UK government and public sector organisations to deliver better, more efficient, more modern and transformative services to all people in the UK.

Whether the civil service ought to be depending on a private sector supplier - particularly one with an already deep footprint in the public sector market - is a question that some may find troublesome, but Digital Minister Matt Hancock is very excited about it, to the extent of pimping the supplier's press release on Twitter. (He's got form here, having done the same for BT recently!)


Also excited was Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, who was coincidentally visiting Microsoft’s UK headquarters in Thames Valley Park yesterday, a location seemingly chosen to announce the latest GDP figures (?), but which also provided some nice photo opportunities with the politician and some digital trainees.

It also provided a suitable tech venue for a plug for the Modern Indsutrial Strategy announced by Prime Minister Theresa May earlier in the week, a strategy whose delivery is going to be impeded by lack of digital skills. Hammond said:

Our technology industry is fundamental to securing future economic growth and this government is committed to ensuring it continues to thrive. It’s a key part of our Industrial Strategy to back Britain for the long term, creating the conditions where business can flourish, driving growth for the whole nation.

 Outsourcing the issue?

Cynicism aside, Microsoft is putting its money where its mouth is. Last year it published its Digital Transformation Report,  which found that just over a third (35%) of public sector respondents believe they have a digitally literate leadership team. Having pointed out the problem, the tech supplier is at least attempting to do something about it.

That said, that report made for some depressing reading in its own right. When asked how significantly respondents in the public sector expected to be disrupted by digital transformation, 41% said not significantly and a further 25% said only moderately. Given the inertia around change - and the downright resistance to it from some quarters in Whitehall - they’re probably right, but it’s disheartening that only 16% of respondent can see significant potential for disruptive change.

The report also found that only 11% of respondents thought that an inability to attract digital talent into the public sector was a constraint to digital transformation, with 38% citing budget constraints as the biggest issue. The ‘chuck some money at it’ mentality lives on, even if its prospects in an age of austerity are limited. The report noted:

There is a clear discrepancy between the CIO and IT leaders and business leaders as to whether they have a digitally literate leadership team. Possibly they are judging digital leadership on their IT skills, rather than a broader digital competence? In any case, the level of apparent digital illiteracy is significant, particularly given the extent to which our focus sectors are so data-driven.

It’s also interesting that only 35% of public sector respondents believe they have a digitally literate leadership team when concepts such as e-government and transformational government have been around for more than a decade. This highlights some of the systemic problems faced by public sector organisations in embracing digital transformation.

The public sector training push from Microsoft is part of a wider initiative which includes a commitment to provide every UK citizen free online digital literacy training. Additionally, Microsoft is launching a Cloud Skills Initiative, a scheme to train 500,000 people in the UK in advanced cloud technology skills by 2020.

Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK CEO, said that there’s an urgent need for such programmes:

We believe a fourth industrial revolution is underway – one driven by the transformative power of cloud technologies. In the wake of the EU referendum vote, the UK is looking at charting a new and different path to its future and Microsoft is committed, as it has been for more than thirty years, to helping the UK realise its full potential. We believe maintaining the UK’s global competitiveness relies on a successful transition to a cloud-enabled economy.

With that in mind, Microsoft also announced a goal of delivering 30,000 new digital apprenticeships through the MS apprenticeship programme in the UK by 2020. Rose explained:

Microsoft sees digital apprenticeships as a vital tool to address the skills shortage in the UK and ensuring the UK’s competitive advantage. This is not just about the numbers of people acquiring these skills so necessary for the future but also attracting and supporting a diverse range of people. In particular, we will work hard to attract more women to these programmes. And, in order to do that, we encourage all organisations to do what they can to also provide and support as many diverse UK apprenticeships as possible.

My take

That the UK as a nation finds itself in such dire digital skills straits in government is something we can lament for as long as we like, but the reality is that we have painted ourselves into a corner and need to sort out our predicament. So while I confess to unease at the sight of Cabinet ministers with spending and digital responsibilities acting as PR person for suppliers to government and turning up at tech headquarters, especially at a time when it’s apparent that oligopoly is no longer a dirty word in government circles, we are where we are.

If the public sector skills crisis is to benefit from Microsoft’s training schemes, then so much the better. What we do need to see is more tech providers doing the same though, so that it’s not just the once voice or worldview that’s being heard. We need the likes of Oracle and HP to be doing the same as major incumbents in the sector, as well as challengers in the space, such as Salesforce and Google.

Most of all, we need senior ministers to get behind the digital skills problem with considerably more rigour internally and not outsource the issue to private sector tech firms. Digital Minister Hancock was all over the Microsoft news yesterday on Twitter. It would be encouraging if he was as responsive to the Digital Skills Crisis report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

That was published last June, but Stephen Metcalfe, chairman of the Committee, found it necessary to write to Hancock on 13 January to express "disappointment" about slowness in responding to the report and its recommendations. These included making digital skills a priority in the revised Digital Strategy - which itself has still not appeared, a year after its promised publication. The Committee called for the creation of:

an effective pipeline of individuals with specialist skills in data science, coding and a broader scientific workforce that is equipped with a firm grounding in mathematics, data analysis and computing. The Strategy should commit the Government to annual dynamic mapping of public sector and industry initiatives and public spending on digital skills against the economic demand for those skills. This would help it assess the effectiveness of measures that are already in place in addressing the digital skills crisis, and create a long-term mechanism for investment in and adjustment of the Digital Strategy to maximise its effectiveness.

Or we could just leave it to Microsoft to deal with, eh?