Civil service pay caps risk poaching of digital talent, event hears

Top digital officials tell the Institute for Government about the challenges government faces in recruiting and retaining specialists

By Rebecca Hill

01 Nov 2016

The government needs to address public sector salaries, the 1% cap on pay rises and the leadership qualities it looks for if it is to attract and retain the best digital talent, digital experts have said.

The comments came at an Institute for Government event to discuss the think tank’s new report on digital government, which sets out the challenges government faces in making the most of technology.

According to the IfG, one of these is the difficulty departments face in recruiting the best digital talent, with problems including competition with the private sector and departments “poaching” other departments’ digital specialists.

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Responding to a question from CSW's sister site PublicTechnology about whether this poaching was an issue, Oliver Morley, the chief executive of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), said he was “not convinced it was a massive problem”, and said such moves should be expected because of the ongoing pay cap on civil servants’ salaries.

“A 1%-a-year pay rise for six years is going to create an environment where poaching takes place" – DVLA chief executive Oliver Morley

“A 1%-a-year pay rise for six years is going to create an environment where poaching takes place, because the only way you can move people up the scale is by promoting them,” he said.

Although he acknowledged that there was clearly compensation that comes with working in the public sector, the DVLA chief said that even these could not compete in the long-term, and said it was “not tenable” for civil servants’ pay to continue “bump around in the bottom quartile”.

"Frustrated by the pace in Whitehall"

Meanwhile, Alex Holmes, chief operating officer of the Government Digital Service, said he believed it was important for the centre to play a role in addressing recruitment and retention problems.

GDS is, he said, working with departments to try and stop people having to move “from one half of the floor to the other” because one of them has a much higher pay scale than the other.

He added that the more work GDS did in looking at differences across the civil service, the more silos it exposed. “It’s all about blending these silos,” he said.

For fellow panel member Charlotte Jee, editor of trade title Techworld, the bigger problem was less the pay and more the working environment for digital specialists.

“Although pay has something to do with it, it’s hardly surprising government is struggling because even the most interesting start-ups in Shoreditch struggle,” Jee said.

“I think it’s more about working environment: they can get frustrated by the pace in Whitehall and some of the less useful behaviours they see from some people,” she added. “They need to feel they’re being supported in what they’re trying to deliver.”

The idea of encouraging a better working environment – rather than relying on pay alone – to bring in the best people was also picked up on by Kit Collingwood-Richardson, deputy director of Universal Credit at Department for Work and Pensions.

For instance, she stressed the importance of bringing in the right people at every grade in the civil service, as well as recruiting for different leadership qualities, such as humility and the ability to look more widely than themselves.

Collingwood-Richardson argued that if government recruited and rewarded people with those attributes by allowing them to rise up the ranks, “they won’t leave for better paid jobs elsewhere because government will be an exciting place to work”.

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