By Mark Smulian

11 Jul 2016

While some civil servants are tech savvy, others lack the skills to embrace 21st-century ways of working. How can this be addressed? Mark Smulian reports on a recent CSW round table discussing digital transformation

Digital transformation of government will succeed only if all concerned have the skills to use and exploit the technology involved. But do they? 

The idea that there still exist civil servants who open their emails only monthly and do not understand dropdown menus might seem startling, but such cases were cited by participants at the Civil Service World / Sopra Steria round table on Transforming Government Through Digital Technology.

Sopra Steria: Government Digital Trends Survey 2016
How can civil servants collaborate on policy design to improve outcomes?​

These were perhaps extreme examples, but concern about the service’s lack of digital skills was highlighted by digital transformation leader Sopra Steria’s second annual survey of government digital trends, in which 53% of respondents said they did not receive adequate digital skills training, a 10 percentage points increase on the previous year’s results.1

Introducing the discussion around issues raised by the survey, John Baskerville, Sopra Steria’s managing director, government, said digital transformation was being more widely adopted, but also “more respondents are now worried about skills and levels of resources than before”.

Baskerville was also concerned that the fruits of digital changes were not being measured.

Asked to state their primary measure of success for digital transformation, the single most popular answer among civil servant respondents was “we are not currently measuring this”, something the survey report suggested needed to be “addressed urgently”.

Baskerville added that the findings showed: “If results are being measured a lot of people don’t know that, and if they are not being measured, how do we know we are putting scarce resources in the right places?”

Chair Richard Vize began the discussion by asking if panellists had encountered digital skills shortages in their departments.

Adam Mortimer, senior change and implementation manager at the Department for Work & Pensions, said he had found “a dearth of basic skills, even the fundamental ability to use various Microsoft packages”. 

“The focus is on the day job rather than digital capability,” he added.

Even when people were trained, these skills could be lost after a while through lack of regular use.

“It is all very well to send people on courses, but they need to be able to consolidate those skills to put them into practice,” he said.

Peter Osazuwa, head of risk management at the Ministry of Justice, said staff skills were not well documented so no one knew where skills gaps were across government.

“It’s easy for me to say we don’t have the skill set, but do we know what we do have?” he asked.

Garet Llewellyn, who joined the Government Digital Service a year ago and now works for HM Revenue & Customs, said he had encountered people who checked emails only monthly “and did not know why that was not acceptable”. But he thought government had more problems with high level digital skills than with oddities like this.

“There is a dearth of [digital] developers – well not dearth, they are out there but we just can’t afford them – researchers and designer skills,” he said. “Government seems to think you can get by just by sending someone on a two-day course.”

Such courses might equip those concerned with skills but would not give them sufficient understanding of the wider digital context and so “we get people who have skills but no understanding, and so very little capability,” Llewellyn said.

Firuza Islam, executive officer, operational delivery, for the Department for Work & Pensions’ benefit services directorate, knew of cases where “we can get somebody on that two-day course and they come back and say, ‘you have to do ABC and D’, and when asked why, they don’t know. And that presents the problem. We don’t know why we are doing what we do, but we’re doing it anyway.”

Emma Stace, group chief digital officer at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, said that to make sense of skills gaps she thought of them as “three buckets”: digital specialists; leaders who should know enough to apply digital capabilities well in a business context; and generic digital capability among other staff.

She said: “I don’t think we have any significant data on buckets two and three, and bucket one is a challenge.” 

Stace added: “It’s easy to set up a digital team, put them in a bubble and have them deliver a service, but how do we mainstream it? We have to expect everything to be digital. It will completely change the way we operate in government.”

Some questioned whether the demand for scarce training resources was unnecessarily increased by civil servants having to grapple with inappropriate software.

Tim Meddick, operational team manager for personal independence payment in the DWP Benefit Services Directorate, said staff considered training inadequate when in fact they had to work with systems not designed for their current purpose and which had undergone various adaptations with mixed results.

“Sometimes we require a lot of skills because the products we have are not great,” he said.

“Staff are put off because they perceive training as inadequate but they are using things where we take off-the-shelf systems and try to shoehorn them in, and work around things.”

Claire Phillips, senior executive officer, operational delivery with the Crown Prosecution Service in south-west -England, said: “The biggest struggle we have is using a system designed for something 14 years ago with things bolted on afterwards. It’s clunky and has had lots of updates and people haven’t had training on it.

“I did have one lawyer who didn’t know what a drop down was, but the system has developed and people have not developed with it, and they say it doesn’t work but if you know how to use it, it does work.”

Christopher Shrimpton, staff officer for the Border Force in Scotland, said he found a great desire in the Home -Office to innovate but “you need people with an understanding of the limitations of skills shortages, who understand that digital can only go so far and have an understanding of operations.”

Skill levels can also be improved by recruiting young entrants and attracting specialists from outside.

The first of these approaches can stumble on a mismatch between the sort of working environment that young tech-savvy graduates expect and what the civil service has historically offered. And the second approach can falter on the financial front: government can rarely match private sector IT pay.

Mortimer said that talking to young people about “digital” was “like being an embarrassing dad, to them digital doesn’t mean anything, it just is what it is”.

Llewellyn pointed out: “You are not going to get a good developer for 30 grand a year, that just will not happen, it’s all down to grading structures and whether you can afford people.”

Osazuwa accepted this point, but said £60,000 might tempt such a person but for that they should also be required to impart their skills to colleagues. Longer term he felt the only way to generate a supply of the skills needed was “changing the school curriculum”. 

Angi Ridgwell, director general for financial and corporate services in the Department of Energy & Climate Change, felt young people with digital skills could be attracted to the civil service, but not in the traditional way of seeing it as their entire career – they would prefer to add something impressive to their CV for when they moved on. 

Ridgwell explained: “We should view staff as taking time in government as part of a career pathway, not for 45 years. That way we retain talent for two-to-four years and even if the salary is not as competitive as outside it can still be a good thing on their CV. To attract people we need to give them something really sexy in terms of the product they will deliver.”

Several participants noted that poaching of skilled IT staff by one department from another was hardly unknown, and wondered if employing such people centrally might be an answer. 

Stace said “millennials” – those who have grown up with digital technology – had different career priorities from their elders. “They are interested in earning because they have student debt, and interested in whether they will be given opportunities and empowered to do stuff.”

She added: “They also value the physical environment – good coffee, art on walls, a buzzy atmosphere, sofas, and that is all difficult to get across to people who spent years coming up through the [civil service] ranks.”

HMRC had already taken some steps in this direction, said its programme director for making tax digital for business, Theresa Middleton: “HMRC has set up digital delivery centres to co-locate teams in an agile environment, which attempt to be a fun, buzzy setup with everyone on their laptop.”

Llewellyn recommended a visit to HMRC’s Dorset House in central London, which he described as “a classic government building, but the ambience is very interesting, it’s a different way of working – it’s not like being in a long chicken run”.

He said government employment conditions could be a selling point to digital talent as “a lot of people say they don’t just want to make money for people, they want to go home at six if possible, and not work an 18-hour day living on pizzas, so there are massive positive things government has to offer”.

John Abbott, director of digital services at the Land Registry, noted that his previous employer, Ordnance Survey, had taken steps to enable people to progress through building technical skills rather than as traditional managers.

“Ordnance Survey took a leaf out of Met Office’s book, where progress had depended on managing people or budgets but that did not work for their meteorologists, so they had a new job description that allows technical specialists to progress. And that idea was helpful to us,” he said.

The Land Registry had made progress towards becoming a digital organisation but had found “a tension between improving legacy systems and reinventing in an organisation that is working day to day,” Abbott added.

Despite the many challenges, most participants felt there should be optimism about the possibilities offered by digital.

Middleton said: “The wheels are turning, the government is investing, people are starting to look at transforming the underlying products rather than just putting the transaction online, so I feel positive and optimistic and it makes me genuinely believe that 2020 will be very different.”

In one example of digital transformation, Phillips said an in-house team of prosecutors at CPS had recently developed an app “that leads into our system and sends results of hearings straight back to the system, so 40-50% of cases are finalised straight away and do not need a member of admin to do it”.

Shrimpton explained how he had put data about Border Force staff terms and conditions and shift patterns together with data about aircraft movements to develop a new system to deploy staff more effectively to cover the busiest airports.

But there was concern that if “success” is measured in terms of staff savings, digital would engender resentment among those who felt their jobs were at risk. Islam said: “We measure success by reductions in staff resourcing and as we get more transformed we’ll need less and less resource and that is one measure; the other is how we are delivering to the public.”

Ridgwell noted: “There is a natural tendency not to broadcast some of this because of the impact on jobs. My experience is everyone knows we need to drive down costs, and if we are open and honest early on and give them the opportunity to re-skill most have relatively positive experiences, but sometimes we shy away from honest conversation.”

James Pitman, DWP digital business coach lead, said he liked to emphasise “‘the reason why’, as I call it to staff, making sure objectives are clear at the start and what is in it for a person.
“When people understand the ‘why’ they are more effective. An emotional level of engagement is needed, it’s not necessarily about money or an easier day.”

Tom McCann, director for civil government at Sopra Steria, agreed: “Celebrating success and winning hearts and minds are absolutely key, as a lot of this is cultural change not just delivering new technology.”

Summing up the discussion, Baskerville concluded: “Without doubt momentum is growing. There are definitely some challenges ahead but the sense of expectation is growing and the appetite for broader benefits from digital is also growing. The biggest take-away for me is there should be cause for huge optimism. There is a good understanding of some of the challenges, a definite consensus they can be overcome, and recognition that the potential of what can be achieved is enormous.”

To download the 2016 Government Digital Trends Survey, click here

Read the most recent articles written by Mark Smulian - Networks banned from inviting speakers critical of government

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