Civil service staff take Digital Skills Gap into own hands

26 June 2017 7 min. read

Despite enthusiasm for digital transformation, Whitehall workers are becoming frustrated by a lack of support and clear leadership, a Sopra Steria survey reveals. Civil servants are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, in the absence of effective training that addresses their Digital Skills Gap.

Digital transformation consultants Sopra Steria, who provide a range of professional services advice to private and public sector clients across Europe, has published a revealing insight into the inner strains of the British Civil Service administration at Whitehall.

The firm’s updated Government Digital Trends Survey, a report analysing three years’ worth of feedback from civil servants engaged in delivering the digital transformation agenda, captured nearly 4,500 responses. The results unveil a startling lack of support for civil servants, who have been forced to take concerns surrounding a persistent, growing skills gap into their own hands, despite governmental enthusiasm in digitisation.

Majority feel Digital is changing the way they work for the better

Researchers, building on surveys in 2015 and 2016, also highlighted striking impact of digital transformation across central government in the three years since. A vast majority of 88% of civil servants surveyed now agree that “Digital” is changing the way they work. Despite the challenges and disruption inherent in change at this scale, a growing majority of 64% feel their job has benefitted from the move to digital. However, this increasingly engaged and informed workforce, is becoming more aware of the scale of the challenges ahead, and raising concerns about the need for better training and leadership.

The head of the civil service, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, had previously declared he had “no doubt at all” that the civil service was “well equipped to deliver all of this government's priorities – including the UK's exit from the EU,” despite the government facing increasing criticism regarding the amount of public money being spent outsourcing policy implementation to the private sector.

Insufficient Training

In contrast to Heywood’s opinions however, at 43% almost half of the civil servants surveyed by Sopra Steria still do not feel their training has been sufficient. With the increasing demands placed on the service following almost a decade of austerity cuts and the added strain of implementing Brexit, this sentiment has led to civil servants frustrated at the government’s inaction taking training into their own hands. 

Skills training increase, but growing number feel it is still insufficient

Although 35% of workers in 2017 said their digital skills training had increased meanwhile, over a third of respondents said that they had taken to self-directed study in their own time to ensure they have the digital skills for their role, a number which has grown from 24% in 2015 to 36% now. This means a large portion of those feeling better trained were not beneficiaries of work-place training, but had spent their own time and resources to improve their digital skills for their employment.

The largest number of respondents also said that ‘informal best-practice’ sharing is a primary means of building digital skills, with 44% stating this had been their mode of training. Most worryingly, only 8% said they received digital skills training as part of their formal induction to the civil service, while 29% said they still have not been given any training in the digital skills needed for their role.

Civil servants consistently list a lack of resources as among the top barriers to change, with 20% of those interviewed stating they consider it the most significant issue – and the paper notes that the challenge of resources will not ease in the near future as while the 2015 spending review allocated a total of £1.8 billion to digital projects across government up to 2020, departmental budgets were again cut. Civil service employees are due to remain frustrated therefore, as they see government as spending big on outsourcing work to the professional services industry, rather than prioritising the long-term development of its in-house employees.

What has been done to ensure you have the digital skills you need in your role?

Resources diverted

The picture that civil servants paint strikes a stark contrast with last year’s revelation by the National Audit Office that government spending on private consultants and temporary staff had risen by between £400 and £600 million since 2013. The NAO also exposed government spending on consulting in excess of £1 billion in 2015, with the largest suppliers being the Big Four firms PwCDeloitteKPMG and EY, as well as UK headquartered PA Consulting Group and American strategy giants McKinsey & Company and The Boston Consulting Group.

In a statement following the release of the Sopra Steria’s paper, the firm’s Government Sector Strategy Director, Philip Craig, commented, “It’s encouraging to see that despite both internal and external pressures, enthusiasm for digital transformation in government services is so resilient.”

However, in the days following a surprise general election result, in which massive Conservative losses saw a hung Parliament, Craig also warned that effective strategies in addressing a Digital Skills Gap and transforming government services revolve around strong political and managerial leadership. With a faltering coalition between weakened Prime Minister Theresa May and Northern Ireland’s hard-line DUP looking increasingly unstable, the robust governance needed to implement a coherent strategy for digitisation and staff development seems to be evaporating.

He concluded, “Our survey is being released just as a new government is being formed, one whose first tasks will be ensuring it has an effective strategy to address major reforms presented by an EU exit. This Government will, of course, be looking for the best return on its investment, an earnest focus on developing and sourcing digital skills and capabilities is a sure bet.”