UK needs £725m to boost public sector digital skills

The National Audit Office has called for 2,000 new hires with digital expertise

The government will need to spend 725 million over the next five years on training new digital staff for the civil service, if it's to keep up with the pace of demand for new skills, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

To face emerging challenges, the government will need to hire an additional 2,000 employees over the next five years, equipped with the skills needed to face emerging digital challenges.

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While the new Digital Strategy has promised training opportunities for four million private-sector placements, the government has been criticised for shrinking the size of the civil service by almost 26% since 2006, while its overall workload has increased with smaller budgets.

According to an NAO report released on Friday, government departments are aware they do not possess the specialist skills needed to operate within an increasingly digitised economy, and also need senior leaders with expertise in "project planning, benefits realisation and contract management".

"Departments also reported that they would need around 2,000 additional staff in digital roles within five years' time, although those responsible for government's digital skills believe this is an underestimate," the report states. The cost incurred is expected to be 145 million each year, or 725 million over five years, although this is considered to be the minimum spend.

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The problem is likely to get worse once the new IR35 tax rules come into force on 6 April, which could lead to an exodus of freelance contractors who are likely to face tougher tax bills on public sector work.

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A focus on numbers rather than skills

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: "The civil service is facing ever-increasing challenges. The work of government is becoming more technical, continuing budgetary restraint is putting pressure on departments and the decision to leave the EU means government will have to develop new skills and take on work previously done by others.

"Government has gaps in its capability and knows it must do more to develop the skills it needs," added Morse.

The government's traditional approach to hiring new staff has been to focus on numbers rather than the skills needed to adequately perform the roles. This, according to the NAO, means "it has not assessed the skills of the current workforce in a comparable or structured way" and that the government does "not know what skills they have, whether these are in the right place and what additional skills they need".

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In a series of self-assessments carried out by the civil service, departments gave themselves an average score of 2.1 out of five for their current capabilities in workforce planning.

The government also been urged to prioritise projects and transformation programs and ditch those unlikely to deliver, particularly as the country faces external challenges in the form of Brexit, considered by the Cabinet Secretary as the "biggest, most complex challenge facing the civil service in our peacetime history".

The vote to leave the EU has already led to an increased demand for new capability needs throughout the civil service. This has included the creation of two new departments and more than a thousand new roles to prepare for the exit, according to the report, however only two-thirds of these new roles have been filled.

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