Civil service pay hindering recruitment of digital staff, say Whitehall tech chiefs

National Audit Office survey finds concern among government's digital leaders over their ability to recruit and retain staff – but there's support for many Cabinet Office intiatives to sharpen tech skills

By matt.foster

02 Dec 2015

Civil service pay is hampering the government’s ability to recruit and retain staff with the right digital skills, according to an extensive new survey of Whitehall's technology leaders by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The spending watchdog gathered the views of 36 chief digital officers, chief information officers and chief technology officers from across government departments, agencies and arm's-length bodies, as part of a wide-ranging look at the state of digital skills in the civil service.

More than four-fifths of those asked (29 out of 36 leaders) said the amount they were able to pay staff had had a negative impact on their organisation’s ability to “recruit and retain the right people from elsewhere”.

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Just two leaders said pay levels had had a positive impact on the ability of their organisation to hire and hold onto the right staff, while four more said pay had had no impact.

Twenty-nine respondents meanwhile said that they believed civil service recruitment processes had had a negative impact on their department or agency, and 28 out of 36 leaders said external market conditions had taken a toll on digital skills. 

Image courtesy: National Audit Office

Participants were also asked to assess the barriers to developing the digital skills of their existing staff, with almost two-thirds (22 out of 36 leaders) saying the financial position or budget of their organisation had had a negative impact on training.

Half of those asked (18 leaders) said organisational culture was a barrier to training staff, while 41% (15 leaders) gave a negative rating of the career paths available to digital specialists.

The publication of the survey comes after civil service chief executive John Manzoni and Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock promised fresh measures to try and ensure that Whitehall was better able to hold onto staff with digital and commercial skills through the introduction of a new pay grade for specialists.

Hancock told MPs this week: “I want permanent civil servants with those skills within the civil service, and that’s why we’re bringing in new pay bands for those with specialist skills in order to ensure that these skills are deeply embedded in the civil service.”

Elsewhere in the NAO's survey, leaders painted a more positive picture of the impact of specific initiatives launched by central government to support departments and agencies in building digital skills.

In the last parliament, the Cabinet Office established the dedicated Government Digital Service (GDS) team to support departments in improving both the user experience of online services and their ability to deal with technology suppliers. The unit received a surprise £450m boost to its budget at last week's Spending Review.

More than half (20 out of 36 leaders) said the Digital and Technology Skills Matrix – introduced by GDS to help departments with workforce planning – had been “fairly” or “very helpful”.

Image courtesy: National Audit Office

Overall, organisations rated Cabinet Office guidance on digital as either “fully” or “mostly relevant”, with the majority saying they either adhered to “most aspects” or “every aspect” of the advice offered by the centre.

The Major Projects Leadership Academy, the training school launched in 2013 to improve the leadership of big public sector schemes, was meanwhile rated as “fairly helpful” by 13 leaders, and “very helpful” by six – although just under half of those asked (17 leaders) said they had not made use of it.

While one leader said the placing of GDS staff in their organisation had been “very unhelpful”, with another three saying such an intervention had been “fairly unhelpful”, 16 leaders said GDS support had been either “fairly” or “very helpful”. The remaining 16 said they had not used GDS staff.

The NAO’s full findings are available below

The Digital Skills Gap in Government Survey Findings December 2015 by CivilServiceWorld

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