Interview: government digital skills chief on her work to recruit and develop Whitehall tech leaders

Written by Sam Trendall on 13 June 2018 in Interview
Interview

CSW’s sister title PublicTechnology talks to the head of capability for the civil service’s digital, data and technology profession, Holly Ellis, about how the mantra of ‘do things once’ is being applied to help departments hire and train digital talent

Photo: GDS

Data released last summer by the Office for National Statistics revealed that, during 2016/17, the number of civil servants increased for the first time in seven years.

Between 2010 and 2016, the civil service shrunk by more than 100,000 people, with staff numbers falling from 527,484 to 418,343. This equates to more than one in five government jobs being eradicated in just a few years.

But, even in the midst of such a drastic workforce reduction, one group of civil servants has seen their cohort continue to grow at least steadily, and often rapidly. 

In nine of the last 10 years – and all of the last five – the number of people employed by central government in digital, data, and technology (DDaT) roles has increased, according to the ONS.

A decade ago there were 6,350 civil servants employed in the profession then known as IT. By 2017 – and against a backdrop of a wider 20% reduction in the size of the civil service – this number had nearly doubled to 11,860.

That contrast may be stark, but it is hardly surprising.

Successive governments’ work to shrink Whitehall has created an imperative for the civil service to do more with less. This, in turn, has helped drive the transition towards digital services – which can reduce the burden placed on both design and delivery professionals, by using common tools, templates, and data sources, and swiftly scalable online services.

    When I left college… I had absolutely no idea of the opportunities here. But the civil service is very supportive… and empowering – allowing people to take on responsibility quite early in your career.

Some 782 government services are now available digitally. Many of these have, almost overnight, gone from being wholly paper based, to being provided largely, or even entirely online.

Of course, the establishment of the Government Digital Service in 2012 has been a key driver behind the digitisation of public services – and the growth of the DDaT profession across Whitehall.

But, with 850 employees, GDS accounts for only one in 14 of the total number of technologists and data experts employed in the civil service.

And this is a number that seems certain to continue to grow.

The Government Transformation Strategy and the Shared Services Strategy mandate departments to transform their technology environment and revamp the way they work, by implementing common digital platforms and tools, and improving the sharing and use of data.

All of which will require further augmentation of the civil service’s base of DDaT expertise – both through recruitment of experts, and the development of new skills among existing employees.

Leading this work is Holly Ellis who, in April last year, was appointed to the newly-created role of director of capability for the DDaT profession.

“Every element of transformation has a digital element within it – we are responding to the pace of change in departments”, she says. “We are not having to sell ourselves to departments – they are really up for our support… our challenge is being able to respond quickly enough to meet their needs.”

11,860
Number of civil servants employed in DDaT roles in 2017

86.8%
Growth of the civil service DDaT profession in the last decade

Leeds, London, Manchester, and Newcastle
Locations from which the GDS Academy offers training

38
Number of roles defined in the government’s DDaT profession framework

2.8%
Amount of civil servants who work in DDaT roles – compared with 1.2% a decade ago

Source: ONS and GOV.UK

Ellis and her team are based within GDS, although she tells PublicTechnology that the digital unit is “a customer of ours”, just like any other department or agency.

In the year she has been in the job so far, her team has been working on laying “the foundations” needed to deliver the necessary growth in skills.

The first stage of this groundwork was the publication in March 2017 of the first framework of 38 common DDaT roles. That document also put the number of civil servants working in the DDaT profession at 17,000 – more than 5,000 higher than the ONS figures.

The framework is not is not a static document, Ellis says, and will be added to “as the market evolves”.

“It stops every department going and building their own framework. These are the types of initiative that add value,” she adds.

Following on from its publication, the capability team has worked to understand what Whitehall’s DDaT roster currently looks like, and how it needs to change and develop in the coming years.

“We have been doing a big exercise to plan the future workforce,” Ellis says.

Meanwhile, her team have also worked with departments to help them map the DDaT framework onto their existing personnel and identified “where the gaps are”.

Adding talent

Having worked out what expertise needs to be added and where, the next stage is to put in place the requisite talent to meet demand. This, essentially, takes two forms: development; and recruitment.

The GDS Academy was formed in May last year, having evolved out of the Digital Academy that formerly sat within the Department for Work and Pensions. It has 25 tutors offering classroom-based training who have, so far, provided courses to about 8,000 civil servants. The academy plans to train a further 3,000 each year.  It also works with the local authorities, as well as charities.

“There is vast potential for the GDS Academy,” Ellis says. “There is a real mix of [courses]. There is service design, we have courses for policymakers. We also have an upskilling programme… part of that work is upskilling civil servants [on digital] in general, but part of it is providing opportunities to change your career.”

Recruitment of talent is another area where a centralised capability function can help deliver efficiencies, Ellis says. The most in-demand roles can be recruited for en masse, with targeted initiatives.

“We have done an audit of our workforce, we understand which roles are a priority for numerous departments,” she says. “Where we find there is high demand for a particular role for more than five departments, that is where we run cross-department recruitment campaigns. Our role is identifying the high demand, then using whatever route is available to us.”

Ellis adds: “If nine departments are going to advertise for technical architects, we can pull together a very compelling story… there are real benefits in us being able to provide efficiencies where it makes sense, and helping build sharing relationships across departments. When it comes to things like describing jobs, there is a real role for us to play in being consistent.”

When recruiting for senior individuals, there is no denying that the private sector can provide greater potential compensation. But government can offer more than just money, Ellis says.

“I think there are few comparable environments in terms of the impact you can have on society,” she says. “You may not be rewarded financially in the way you would elsewhere, but the total value of the experience you can gain, and the impact you can have, is unrivalled. I have never had the chance to work on such interesting projects. Our pitch to really senior people is that they can really make a difference, and they can really drive change.”

And, according to Ellis, there is a similar pitch for those entering the workforce – who might otherwise focus on graduate schemes run by tech or professional services firms.

    Part of our work is upskilling civil servants in general, but part of it is providing opportunities to change your career.

“It is almost the same things at a different scale,” she says. “When I left college, I went to work for a really small digital agency, and I have made really small transitions since then. I would never have considered an emerging-talent scheme in the civil service, and I had absolutely no idea of the opportunities here. But the civil service is very supportive… and empowering – allowing people to take on responsibility quite early in your career.”

Ellis adds: “And you can come here, do all that work – and still go to Google!”

Known unknowns

To help inform the technology sector of the civil-service opportunities of which Ellis herself was unaware, the capability team undertakes a number of initiatives, including hosting and attending recruitment fairs and other events. It is also currently working on a research project “to understand who doesn’t know about us”, with the aim of being to reach those who might otherwise not hear about the possibility of working in the civil service.

Wherever they come from, DDaT professionals will continue to be a valuable commodity in government. Ellis says her team is ready to meet this demand.

“For me, the last year has been about setting the foundations,” she says. “The next year is about delivering... we have the momentum.”

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