Defra revamps recruitment to reduce reliance on consultants

Digital chief Harriet Green tells PublicTechnology Live event that department has focused on specialisms, rather than the generalist skills the civil service recruitment process is designed to find
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By Sam Trendall

21 Apr 2021

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has reduced its reliance on external consultants by changing its recruitment processes for digital, data and technology professionals to focus on specialist skills. 

Like a lot of government depatments and agencies, Defra– which faced one of the biggest Brexit-preparation workloads of any department – is no stranger to bringing in outside tech experts.

Or, as joint chief digital officer Harriet Green put it during a panel discussion at the recent PublicTechnology Live conference: “That whole experience of going out to consultants and asking them what you need to do in the world of technology – and then not being able to fulfil what they tell you to do, and going out to them again for fulfilment.”

But in recent years the department has looked to decrease this use of outsourced support by increasing its base of in-house DDaT credentials. A key component of this has been changing the way it recruits people, to focus much more on specialists – rather than the generalists that, according to Green, the civil service recruitment process is designed to identify.

“There has been a process at Defra of gradual professionalisation of the DDaT skills,” she said “When I arrived three years ago there were still plenty of people who were turning their hand to everything: ‘I do a little bit or project management, a little bit of business analysis – might even do a bit of coding as well’.”

She added: “The civil service recruitment process is all about behaviours and success criteria and a lot of these things don’t really compute to the skills we are trying to recruit. So, we have changed our interviews and made them much more about the work that people will actually be doing, and we have brought in team members who are already working in these areas… so it is more of a discussion about: ‘here are some of the problems we have got – how might you approach working with us on this?’ Apart from helping us to understand whether or not that person really has the skills, it gives them already a sense of what it would be like to work with us, and an interest in the issues they would be dealing with.”

Green said there is a “financial driver” for delivering tech initiatives in-house , rather than outsourced contracts. But the most important benefit has been the transition into an organisation that is “more in charge of our destiny”.

She added: “The key driver is… having our own skills, being as intelligent as we can be, having enough knowledge internally to dictate our future and not being subject to that thing whereby you have lots of contractors and any day they could leave with all of that knowledge.”

PublicTechnology Live, which took place live online in March, brought together ministers, senior officials, and representatives of local government, NHS and industry to discuss a comprehensive range of topics related to public sector digital and data. Over the course of two days, more than 50 expert speakers addressed issues including the impact of the last year on digital transformation, the ethics of data use, the future of government online services, and what plans for the public sector's use of technology will look like in a post-pandemic world. 

Many of the week's presentations and panel discussions are now available to view, free of charge. Click here to register to view.

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