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Think tank gives damning review of digital skills in government

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez September 10, 2017
An Institute for Government’s report states that digital is lagging behind in providing learning and development opportunities for digital specialists.

Influential think tank Institute for Government has provided a damning review of the digital professional capability in Whitehall, claiming that leadership changes have led to disruption and that not enough is being done to provide learning and development opportunities for specialists.

In its latest report, ‘Professionalising Whitehall’, Institute for Government assesses central government’s progress in reforming cross-departmental specialisms - a skillset that accounts for 22% of the workforce and covers areas that include HR, Policy, Finance, Commercial, Policy Making and Project Delivery.

The report is worth reading in full and makes a number of recommendations for collectively improving each of these specialisms, but it’s the digital assessment that will provide cause for concern for many.

On why these cross-departmental specialisms are important, the think tank states:

If the UK Government is to stand a fighting chance of dealing with the implications of Brexit and the need to control spending, while attempting to maintain the quality of public services, there must be a greater sense of urgency around ensuring that:

- high-calibre specialists in areas such as commercial, digital, finance, HR and policy are working on priority projects across Whitehall

- these specialists have access to the tools and resources that they need to provide strategic advice and high-quality services to decision makers

- senior decision makers themselves understand, demand and make use of the professional support and services offered by cross-departmental specialisms


Given the government’s historical approach to technology deployment in Whitehall, which traditionally focused on outsourcing capability (including skills) to a select handful of suppliers, it’s unsurprising that departments have found themselves without the talent they need to carry out effective digital projects.

Progress has been made to improve this situation. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has created a strong brand that has managed to attract some impressive talent centrally. Whilst frameworks, such as Digital Outcomes and Specialists, have allowed departments to plug some talent gaps with digital agencies.

Equally, the former Department for Work and Pensions Digital Academy, which had success in training up thousands of civil servants, has now been brought into the Government Digital Service in an attempt to scale up the operation. Progress on this is yet to be articulated, however.

And the government has also created a Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream track for graduates and existing civil servants to boost skills, giving candidates the opportunity to work across up to six departments, over four years.

However, according to Institute for Government, digital is lagging behind other specialisms and more needs to be done. The report states:

As a comparatively new cross-departmental specialism, digital is behind others in providing adequate learning and development opportunities to its specialists. Digital is the only major cross-government specialism not to have a core curriculum underpinning its learning and development offer (although the Government Digital Service is looking at developing one).

Recent scores from the Civil Service People Survey suggest that this lag in developing a clear learning and development offer is playing out in lower staff satisfaction scores.

The report results

The Institute for Government report provides a maturity assessment of cross-departmental specialisms for Commercial, Communication, Digital, Finance, HR, Legal, Policy and Project Delivery. Each specialisms is rated on certain criteria - leadership, clarity of vision, understanding and building capability, building talent pipelines, staff engagement, raising strategic awareness among non-specialists - with each given a green, amber or red rating.

Commercial fared the best with mostly green ratings and only one red rating (lack of stable funding) out of a possible 21 areas. Digital, however, fared the worst with six red ratings in areas that include:

  • Lack of stable leadership
  • No clear accountability structure for cross-department services
  • Leadership lacking knowledge in knowing where talent lies within their specialism
  • Specialists not being assessed against a professional skills framework
  • No core curriculum to support professional development
  • No managed moves of talent to priority areas across Whitehall

The report states:

Delivering many solutions relies on proper employment of new technologies. All too often, Whitehall has struggled (along with many other sectors) to adapt to the new environment created by digital technology, which changes how government operates and services are delivered. The rate of change requires constant adaptability, which is a challenge for any hierarchical organisation.

The think tank also, rightly so, picks up on the disruption in leadership at the Government Digital Service in recent years, with two high profile departures in the space of 12 months. A number of other high profile staff have also left, publicly criticising the changes taking place at GDS. At the height of the disruption, diginomica described the departures as a “digital purge”.

Institute for Government states:

No organisation, as Farkas and Wetlaufer (1996) point out, ‘can lose its leader without losing some sense, even temporarily, of its identity and direction’. Such instability has disrupted efforts to strengthen a number of cross-government specialisms. Project delivery cycled through five heads of function between September 2013 and May 2015, while more recently, digital went through three leaders in just 13 months between August 2015 and September 2016.

This held up publication of the specialism’s strategy document (the Government Transformation Strategy; Cabinet Office and Government Digital Service, 2017) and created considerable uncertainty over the future role of the Government Digital Service and wider digital profession.

What needs to change

The Institute for Government makes two key recommendations for digital that are worth highlighting separately from the broader recommendations that can be found in the report.

Firstly, the report argues that Whitehall needs to reverse the notion that policy makers are in the best position to take up senior roles in government. It states:

Specialists themselves will need to view career development increasingly through the lens of the specialism as a whole, rather than simply their home department. Only then will it become easier to get the right people with the right skills deployed on priorities across Whitehall.

Equally, if the civil service wants to recruit and retain talent, specialists need attractive career paths with meaningful progression opportunities. This means overcoming entrenched perceptions that a policy background is better preparation for senior civil service positions (National Audit Office, 2013a). This is especially important in areas such as digital and commercial, where the civil service is competing in a highly competitive labour market.

The report also recommends that the Civil Service Board - which is responsible for the overall strategic direction of the Civil Service - should include more specialists. It recommends that Kevin Cunnington, leader of the Government Digital Service, get a seat at the top table. It states:

The Cabinet Secretary should improve the balance between permanent secretaries and central heads of specialisms on the Civil Service Board. The current board – made up of permanent secretaries – is very different from federated organisations in the private and wider public sector, which seek greater strategic input from specialists at the top table.

As an immediate step, the Chief People Officer, who already attends board meetings, should be made a full member. Given the Cabinet Secretary’s well-publicised priorities around improving digital and commercial capability in the civil service, the Chief Commercial Officer and Director General of the Government Digital Service would be obvious candidates for full membership.

My take

We constantly hear about work being done to improve the digital capability in Whitehall. And yet, it seems from this review that it is still falling way behind other specialisms. This is worrying, given what it will take to ensure a smooth transition during Brexit and the tough labour market that the government is competing in for skills.

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