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Whitehall staffing cuts add to digital skills shortages and risk increased costs

13 September 2023

  • Government estimates it has under half the number of digital, data and tech professionals it needs
  • PAC calls for digital responsibilities of most senior officials to be formal part of appointment

Digital skills shortages in the civil service are likely to see increased risks and costs to Government. In a report published today, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) finds that 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%, according to Government estimates. This is less than half the number it needs when compared to an equivalent industry average of between 8% and 12%, meaning this number will need to double. However, 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 cyber security experts, whose skills command a premium.

The PAC 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.

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

A surprising finding of the PAC’s inquiry, given the importance of digital to a modern civil service, was that the requirement for senior generalist 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.

Chair's comments

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“One of the hallmarks of the Digital Revolution has been rapid and accelerating change. 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 cyber-security 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.”

Further information

Image: CCO