Finding digital skills and capabilities is key to delivering the UK government’s latest digital strategy, but must be balanced with continued public-private collaboration, according to senior civil servants.

Prepared by the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) and published in June 2022, the digital strategy outlined the government’s three-year plan to transform public services, make better use of data, improve digital skills across the civil service and ensure , that uses technology sustainably.

Promising to deliver more than £1 billion of savings by 2025 alongside “significant improvements” to online public services, the strategy placed particular emphasis on increased collaboration between community organizations and further outlined a “build once, use many times” policy to help to reduce duplication of digital transformation efforts in a fragmented public sector.

Speaking at TechUK’s Building the Smarter State event in London on 29 September, senior civil servants working at different levels of government highlighted the need for digital skills and capabilities to be drawn from in-house sources to a much greater extent than at present.

Attracting talent and preparing for the future

According to Megan Lee, chief strategy and transformation officer at CDDO, one of the key ways government can be made more efficient is through “internal skills and capabilities”, which she added can deliver “huge financial benefits “.

The sentiment was shared by Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer for London, who said that cutting government spending on external agencies to work with technology and data could help solve the digital skills shortage in the public sector as the money that goes to fulfill expensive contracts, they can instead be used to train people: “It basically pays for the investment itself, with some variation because those costs are gone.”

He added that his office was already working with the London Technology Office to map out what kinds of digital and information jobs the public service would need in the future.

Lee further noted that although the government has built a community of around 23,500 digital professionals over the past seven years in a number of fields, the proportion of digital civil servants to non-digital civil servants (also known as “digital density”) is still too low.

She said part of the problem is the public sector’s failure so far to figure out how to compete with the private sector in its ability to attract and retain talent.

Giving more specific figures, deputy director of government digital capabilities at the Cabinet Office, Thomas Butiman, said there were currently 3,867 vacancies in data and technical roles across the civil service. He added that while 4% of government employees are in digital roles, the average in private sector organizations is 10%.

Beautyman added that overall improving and scaling in-house digital capabilities could also give public sector buyers real choice when to use specialist third-party technology providers, moving government away from the ‘always outsource’ assumption.

Speaking about the data challenges associated with digital transformation, Harood Ahmed, commercial partner in data at public sector technology delivery firm Made Tech, said that while the government usually has an abundance of data, it doesn’t talk to many people in the public sector who really know how to access it and what they can do with it.

He added that this was largely due to a “lack of skills in internal teams” and the fact that “staff training was not a priority”, which had resulted in “the inability of the public sector to do really simple things that are they do quite easily, quite successfully, [and] in time in the private sector…there is still a serious gap in knowledge and understanding that needs to be addressed.”

Chris House, chief digital officer at Defra, the UK government’s environment department, added that upskilling in the public sector needs to be wide-ranging and that there needs to be a greater focus on building digital skills of those not yet employed in specialist technology or data roles.

However, stressing the need for digital upskilling, House said Defra still saw an ecosystem approach as the best delivery model: “You can’t maintain the level of expertise you need in different technology areas without the support of a really strong supplier ecosystem.”

This importance of suppliers was also highlighted by civil servants from the Home Office who took the view that digital transformation projects can only be delivered in partnership with an ecosystem of suppliers.

Speaking about the public-private partnership, Angela Essell, head of the Home Office’s Joint Security and Resilience Center (JSARC), said the department’s role “is to partner with the private sector” and ensure it sends “the right demand signals for security capability providers so they can develop and build the type of solutions we need”.

Toby Jones, head of the Accelerated Enablement Environment (ACE) at the Home Office, added that while private sector organizations act as “enablers” for digital transformation efforts, government departments need to be more fluid in their dealings with external suppliers “because no one organization in my experience has all the solutions”.

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