Public Services > Central Government

Whitehall faces digital capability challenge, warns NAO

David Bicknell Published 24 March 2017

Government transformation juggernaut motors on, with no let-up in civil service workload, and no prioritisation; consumers now expect public services to be available digitally


A stark National Audit Office (NAO) report has warned that government faces a major challenge in its ability to implement its policies because of gaps in the Civil Service’s capability, particularly in terms of the digital, commercial and project delivery skills.

And yet those skills are a necessity to manage the transformation of Whitehall organisations and of service delivery, the findings note.

The report, “Capability in the civil service” specifically suggests that Whitehall departments told the NAO that they would need around 2000 additional staff in digital roles within five years’ time, at an annual cost of between £145m and £245m.

It could be even worse. According to the report, the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) believe shortages for digital and project delivery skills will be much greater, particularly given the range of transformation and digital projects ahead.

The NAO points out defines capability as requiring a combination of the right people with the right skills in the right place supported by appropriate accountability, governance, systems, processes and information.

Often, departments simply do not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place, and what additional skills they need.

The NAO said, “We have reported a number of times since 2011 on government’s lack of proper workforce planning and that it does not have a clear picture of its current skills. Government’s workforce planning has focused on the number of people in posts and tended to treat these as generic. As a result it has not assessed the skills of the current workforce in a comparable or structured way. Departments have also not had the means to assess how people are deployed, such as the use of time recording for specialists, with rare exception. This means government does not know enough about who is doing what and when, and whether those carrying out tasks have the necessary skills.”

Despite this lack of skills, there is no let-up in the overall workload of the civil service. The NAO says most of the public services that were delivered before cost reductions continue to be delivered. It says that in September 2015, the 143 projects on the Government Major Projects Portfolio (GMPP) alone involved £405bn of public spending (in whole-life costs).

But, according to John Manzoni, the chief executive of the Civil Service, government is doing “30% too much to do it all well”, while the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) noted that government tends to “add to its list of activities without effective prioritisation”.

At the same time, technology changes and the increasing expectations of citizens are having an impact. The NAO says, “Citizens’ experiences as consumers have led them to expect public services to be more individualised, and available digitally; they also expect to be kept up-to-date on progress. For instance, HM Courts & Tribunals Service is digitising the court system, allowing court papers to be filed online. Departments are also seeking to harness these technologies to make their operations more effective. For instance, HM Revenue & Customs is combining information from multiple sources to assess tax returns. And public servants have higher expectations: the Crown Commercial Service is planning to launch the Crown Market Place to provide an ‘Amazon-style’ experience to support civil servants buying common goods and services. “

But if the government assumed it could readily fill short-term capability gaps by recruiting from the private sector, it will need to think again. The NAO says, “There is a risk that the civil service will assume it can simply acquire from the private sector the skills it needs for challenging projects. Project business cases need to address the risk that the skills will not be obtainable even from the private sector.”

The NAO report suggested that recent evidence from the Civil Service Commission indicates that in 2015-16, the government faced difficulties in recruiting senior people to fill specialist posts. Senior recruitment competitions run by the Civil Service Commission in 2015-16 resulted in 34 out of 158 posts (22%) remaining unfilled. Many of these were for posts requiring specialist commercial or digital skills.

And with Brexit now a reality, there will also be a squeeze on skills there too. The NAO pointed out that the Cabinet Office expects that there will be continued demand for specialist skills in areas relating to exiting the EU across all of government:

  • trade negotiation;
  • commercial and industry sector experts;
  • legal specialists;
  • project and programme managers; and
  • analysts (including economists, statisticians, data scientists and operational researchers).

It added that it was told by the Cabinet Office that more departments are now recruiting externally for these skills, and there is a challenge to ensure that departments do not compete against each other in the market.

“Many of these specialist skills are in short supply in the UK and that it may need to utilise the recently announced pay flexibilities to attract the required level of expertise,” the report said.

Among its recommendations, the NAO said that the government needs to prioritise its projects, activities and transformation programmes, and should stop work on those it is not confident it has the capability to deliver.

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