As we approach the one-year anniversary of the UK Government’s ‘Transforming for a digital future’ policy paper, David Palmer discusses what we have learnt
The ‘Transforming for a digital future’ policy paper sets out a roadmap for digital and data from 2022 to 2025. David Palmer, Market Intelligence Partner & Future Skills expert at BPP, gives his thoughts on the government policy so far.
Could you summarise the UK Government’s ‘Transforming for a digital future’ policy paper?
The government’s policy paper ‘Transforming for a digital future’, released on the 9th of June 2022, sets out the government’s ambitions to transform digital public services, deliver world-class digital technology and systems, and attract and retain the best in digital talent – and to improve the standard of public services in the UK as a result.
The paper includes six missions, including transformed public services; one login for government; better data to power decision-making; efficient, secure and sustainable technology; digital skills at scale; and a system that unlocks digital transformation.
If we were to arrange these missions in sequence, however, we could argue that ‘Digital Skills at Scale’ should really be the first item in the list. How can the public sector use data more effectively and construct systems that deliver the objectives of missions two, four, and six without the people with the skills to do the heavy lifting that these objectives require?
We shouldn’t be under any illusions, either: the government’s changes here will require much heavy lifting
We shouldn’t be under any illusions, either: the government’s changes here will require much heavy lifting. The paper acknowledges that the challenges ahead include:
- Services are often slow, difficult to use and expensive to deliver
- Departments operate many competing digital identity solutions
- Uneven progress and siloed development in individual departments
- Costly issue of legacy IT
- Data quality is inconsistent and frequently poor
- Limited data sharing between departments
- Costly and outdated technology
- Not leveraging scale in technology procurement
A corporation attempting to fix issues as broad as these within a five-year timeframe would have to simultaneously tackle software engineering, data engineering, systems audits and migrations, procurement, significant internal restructuring, and cultural shifts among staff and leadership, and that business would be hard pressed to achieve all of these goals by 2025. A government operation, with significantly more organisational complexity than the vast majority of businesses and far grander in scale, may well miss that aspirational deadline entirely.
What has the UK got to show for the one-year anniversary of the ‘Transforming for a digital future’ policy paper from a skills perspective?
The Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) function has an apprenticeship strategy, and in December 2022, they released an update on the success of their Software Developer Graduate Scheme. They acknowledged in the release, however, that the scale of software developer vacancies across the government is considerable: a July 2022 workforce report placed the figure at 3,683. If vacancies hover above 3,500 and hiring demand outstrips the total number of extant software developers in the UK, then one practical response is to increase the volume of apprenticeship training and to replicate the successes the government has seen on the existing DDaT apprenticeship schemes.
In March 2023, the Central Digital and Data Officer (CDDO) announced their new Digital Functional Standard. From a skills perspective, this helps the government to build digital teams with the requisite skills to meet the 2025 objectives: the Digital Functional Standard outlines the job roles that digital functions need and explains what they’re accountable for. The document itself is useful: it outlines digital transformation principles, data management principles, data frameworks and operating models, and it defines data architecture, asset management, and engineering. These are all concepts that everyone who works with digital technologies and data should be familiar with, even if they themselves are not developers or analysts.
In the CDDO’s six-monthly update, they reported positive signs of growth: “The DDaT profession has grown by 12% (between April and October 2022), with almost 2,200 new colleagues who have either joined government or retrained from another profession.” This is really positive news, but the necessary next question is: is this enough? Does this address the gap between the government’s current capability and its capability to achieve the 2025 objectives? We will have more clarity on that question as we see government vacancy rates change over the course of 2023.
How do we attract highly skilled digital experts in the public sector?
Attraction is perhaps the wrong question to be asking. Hiring the talent this plan requires is not a practical solution to a digital skills gap in the public sector. Technology, software, and data skills are transferable: this makes them excellent skills for individuals to acquire but a problem for employers. If a developer or analyst can transition smoothly from one industry to another, that is a good thing for individual mobility but a problem for employers, who end up competing for the same talent.
The U.K. has a talent shortage. The Office for National Statistics reports that vacancies have been at an all-time high for over a year. The latest BICS survey shows that over 30% of businesses with 50 or more employees struggle with recruitment.
Technology employers alone posted 564,000 job adverts in 2022, according to Lightcast, while the latest NOMIS UK workforce estimate for the number of software developers is only 553,800. Even if we were to assume that roles in the technology industry were comparable with public sector roles in terms of compensation, we are looking at a situation where demand vastly outstrips supply. We can see exactly the same scenario playing out with data analytics, data science, and data engineering roles.
It is reasonable to assume that the high vacancy rates we see across the UK are likely to remain high and, in light of that, to make plans to create the talent they require. One practical way to do that is through apprenticeship training programmes, which many employers increasingly use to acquire these digital and technology skills.
What are the top software skills most in-demand public sector job postings?
The top public sector software skills are predictable: Office applications come at the top of the list, according to Lightcast.
More interesting are the specific technical skills that come after a collection of programming languages. The question to ask – and the question the government, the CDDO and the DDaT are probably asking – is: will the government find people to fill this skills demand in time to meet the 2025 objectives?
Written by David Palmer, Market Intelligence Partner & Future Skills expert at BPP.
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