Digital transformation requires “fundamental change” in Whitehall workforce, says Nokes

Cabinet Office minister Caroline Nokes says Government Digital Service has "come of age", and insists she has never met an obstructive civil servant


By Richard Johnstone

14 Nov 2017

There needs to be a “fundamental change” to the balance of the civil service workforce in order to deliver the government’s proposed digital reforms, Cabinet Office minister Caroline Nokes has said.

In a speech to the Institute for Government this morning setting out the government’s progress in implementing the Government Transformation Strategy, Nokes said the plan includes “complex technical projects” that require new skills across Whitehall.


In particular, she highlighted the implementation of common tools developed centrally that could be used across departments and agencies – what is known as government as a platform.

Among the areas highlighted were GOV.UK Pay (to take payments), GOV.UK Verify (to provide proof of digital identity) and GOV.UK Notify (to provide email, text message or written updates before people have to contact government themselves). These are examples of where government is “building reliable user focused services, with digital components, efficiently”, said Nokes.

Creating these shared digital tools that can be used across government made public services “easier to create and cheaper to run”, she said. Over 100 services across 26 government departments and agencies use government as a platform common components, but expanding such schemes across government will require a shift in the civil service workforce, she added.

“Through the Civil Service Workforce Plan, we are building the civil service’s professional and functional capability, and the skills and leadership of the people within them,” she told the IfG event.

“This is creating the professionals who will be able to deliver significant transformation across the civil service, with the flexibility to direct resource to the most pressing challenges as required. Transformation only happen when you have the right people with the right skills in the right places.

“We are working on some of the world’s largest and most complex technical projects – from software engineers to user researchers, content designers to product managers, analysts to data scientists. It takes talented and delivery focused people to make digital transformation a reality. So we are fundamentally changing the shape of the civil service workforce to make sure that it has the right capability now and for the future.”

Nokes added that the government wanted to “retain and attract talent”, and highlighted that every year 3,000 civil servants go through the Government Digital Service academy.

However, she acknowledged GDS works with “some departments more than others”, and there are some departments facing a greater challenge than others.

“Quite often, government is far too siloed, and departments can have a tendency to think of themselves first and not be too collaborative with their near neighbour departments. And absolutely a critical part of this is making sure that we bring departments on board with our digital agenda.

“Those departments that are customer facing, I’m going to give them credit where it's due, they have been pretty up front and helpful. Others don’t have so much interaction with citizens, and we want to bring them on board with our transformational change too.”

Asked by the IfG’s Daniel Thornton if she had experienced any resistance to these changes, Nokes noted that GDS had been formed as a “disruptor” by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. “I think it has broadly come of age, and it is fair to say you need a system that will work with government,” she added.

Her experience in the Cabinet Office, as well as her previous ministerial role at the Department for Work and Pensions, meant she had “a huge amount of respect for our civil servants”.

“I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I have never found one who is in any way obstructive.

“I think, to be brutally candid I always want to see the process of change to be faster, but government is big, government does have a tendency to be slow, but this is like turning round the proverbial oil tanker. From the centre and from the top we need to show direction of travel and determination.

“Sporadically as a minister you have to slam your hand on your desk and say, ‘just do it’. But I have never met a civil servant who will tell me, in the finest Sir Humphrey terms, ‘that is a brave decision minister’. Broadly they say 'yes'.”   

Nokes revealed that one of her main focuses, as the minister responsible for GDS, was working to make sure the digital experts worked specifically with the Department for Exiting the EU in order to “achieve as smooth a transition as possible – not that I pretend that this is easy”.

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