Three steps to overcome the government's digital skills dilemma

Bill Mew Profile picture for user Bill Mew April 29, 2018
UKCloud's Cloud Strategist, Bill Mew, explains how few of the UK government's efforts to address a shortage of digital skills will have any effect in time for Brexit.

For years an oligopoly of technology suppliers dominated government technology in the UK. Their dominance not only resulted in limited competition and value (overly large and expensive projects that all too often failed to be delivered on time, to cost or at all), but their dominance also led to a hollowing out of technology skills.

Technology skills in government were outsourced to the dominant players to the point where the government was not only short of the skills to deliver projects itself, but in areas it even lacked sufficient skills to define or oversee technology projects. Indeed, the shortage of technology skills impacted the government ability at times either to act as an intelligent customer, or manage its suppliers effectively.

The move to “cloud first” and “digital by default” was accompanied by a move in many areas towards smaller, more manageable, projects that were often supported by smaller suppliers and small internal development teams adopting an ‘agile’ approach.

Within GDS, as well as within development teams in individual departments however, retention of such agile devops skills has been a significant issue.

In part, the retention issues have been down to the shortage and therefore cost of such skills in the wider market - everyone was after the same skills, not just those in the public sector – and frequently the private sector had the freedom to pay more for the skills it needed. It has also been argued that uncertainty about the future of GDS and a drop in morale within many of the development teams further exacerbated the retention issues.

Squaring the circle

There are no easy solutions however. Some departments, concerned at their lack of skills and facing the pressure of Brexit, felt unable to run full procurement exercises (as reported by the FT) and have chosen simply to renew existing contracts with large incumbent suppliers. This is short-sighted. Not only does it repeat the mistakes of the past and simply kick the can down the road, but in order to maintain their services, these large suppliers are recruiting talent from a limited pool and are therefore often poaching staff from within government, thereby exacerbating the problem.

A more constructive solution has been the formation of the GDS Academy which focuses on building skills – and thereby increasing the talent pool. Over 7,500 civil servants having gone through the GDS Academy so far. However, if retention of staff with the most sought-after skills is not improved, this is like pumping more water into a leaking pipe. While government claims that it is taking measures to “recruit and retain the best people, and give them interesting and stretching careers”, steps to introduce a career framework for digital, data and technology specialists across government has started to improve things.

It is important to recognise the progress that has been made – starting with the introduction a year ago of the career framework which define 37 Digital, Data and Technology job roles within government. Also, on top of the GDS Academy (formerly the DWP Digital Academy), two cross-government talent schemes have been added - a graduate programme called DDaT Fast Stream and an apprentice scheme called DDaT Fast Track.

It is also important to recognise the size and indeed the importance of the task ahead. It is like trying to steer the proverbial oil tanker in a particularly intense storm. Many of these initiatives will take some time to make an impact (academies don’t produce armies of skilled staff overnight). Against a headwind of digital skills shortages across all sectors, it will take some time to turn helm to correct things in favour of the public sector, and then take even long for the oil tanker to turn in this direction and to build up any kind of momentum in the direction that we want. All of this with the heavy seas of Brexit causing us to drift further off course.

Stressing the importance of GDS and Skills for the government’s Transformation Strategy

Recently Civil Service chief executive John Manzoni has spoken of the vision for transforming the relationship between citizens and the state – outlined in the government’s Transformation Strategy. Given the implementation challenges that the government currently faces with Brexit, the role of GDS and other development teams is of great importance “from the smallest transaction right up to major reform”, Manzoni explained.

Indeed, in a recent blog about the role of GDS in the Transformation Strategy, Manzoni said, “we will need to adapt how we operate, right across the government. And with most of the 150 priority EU Exit projects requiring technical expertise or tools, GDS is at the very heart of efforts across government to accelerate and assure this delivery.”

Even without the vast number of new priority projects needed to support Brexit, skills were already in short supply (across all sectors, not just in the public sector). We were already facing ever increasing supply and demand issues, that were already driving up the cost of skilled resource. The extra demands have simply exacerbated problems that already existed.

We have three recommendations – two to address the current dilemma and one to prevent it happening again:

1) Spend more where it really counts:

Clear and consistent focus on transformation and the key skills required - Given the short time scales, incredible pressures and battle for talent, the government has already recognised that it needs to focus on all areas – from skills retention (and possibly also acquisition) through to skills development. Even without knowing the outcome of Brexit, there is a clear need for certain key skills to support digital transformation – many of which are known to be in high demand and in short supply.

2) Leverage what you’re already spending:

Using procurement as a lever to recognise the social importance of skills - The government has already recognised, with the Procuring Growth Balanced Scorecard, that in order to maximise the positive impact of public procurement on economic growth, it needs to encourage procurers to take full account of the value suppliers can offer by using a balanced scorecard approach. This not only means that it needs to avoid a return to the bad of days of big IT and focus instead on smaller project and the use of ‘agile’ techniques, but that it also needs to recognise the skills dimension within the balanced scorecard. Suppliers should need to demonstrate that they have training, apprenticeships and skills development programs that mean that they are actively contributing to the talent pool rather than poaching from it (And having suppliers that pay their fair share of corporate taxes to help fund things like the GDS Academy would also help).

3) Play the Long game:

Making digital skills a long-term priority - There are any number of factors that undermine long-term thinking in government and in its use of technology in particular. Not only do we have frequent changes of government, minister and policy, but most IT directors in government are appointed for 2 year terms – allowing hardly enough time to clear up any mess caused by their predecessor, and certainly providing too little time to ensure any real form of strategic longevity. Ensuring consensus (within a party as well as across the political divide), as well as consistency and longevity won’t be easy to achieve – but for an issue of this importance, it needs to be the goal.
It’s not a question of short term fixes or isolated longer-term policies. Given the importance of digital skills for the government’s Transformation Strategy, we need joined-up, long-term thinking.

Image credit - Via pixabay

Disclosure - UKCloud is a diginomica/government premier partner.

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