Public Services

NAO questions Civil Service approach to gaining digital skills

David Bicknell Published 28 January 2013

Office backs work in transforming delivery model and re-designing working practices but wants swifter progress on radical redesign


The National Audit Office has questioned the Civil Service's lack of a strategic approach in obtaining the specialist skills needed for the delivery of information and transactional services 'digitally by default' by 2015.

In a memorandum prepared at the request of the Public Accounts Committee to inform its discussions with the leadership of the civil service about the Plan, the NAO said it identified important risks and challenges that the government should consider.

"Monitoring and managing for value for money in a highly devolved landscape of commercial relationships and digital delivery requires specialist skills, but as we highlighted in 2011, the civil service has not taken a strategic approach to obtaining these," the NAO said.

"We noted that around a quarter of senior operational delivery and programme and project management roles were filled by staff who were not specialists in these fields. The failure to develop essential skills in core areas had led to departments becoming over-reliant on certain types of consultancy, such as programme and project management and IT. More recently, centrally imposed restrictions on hiring consultants have reduced spend, but not solved the underlying problem," the NAO added

In reviewing departments' cost reduction programmes, the NAO said it had found evidence of some 'good work' on transforming the overall delivery model and redesigning working practices. But, it said, progress with radical redesign has been slow because of:

- the lack of good cost and impact information, and a lack of clear performance priorities
- a lack of both digital capability within departments and a consistent approach to digital services, resulting in a relatively slow uptake by users; and
- poorly integrated strategic planning in departments and agencies that does not cut across organisational boundaries or internal silos enough to identify all the options for transformation.

The memorandum argued that project management skills remain a particular concern. In its second report on Assurance for Major Projects, the Committee said it was pleased to see the introduction by the Cabinet Office of the Major Projects Leadership Academy to address these weaknesses. However, it warned that retaining skilled individuals in the public sector and ensuring they remain in a job long enough to enable projects to succeed will be challenging.

The memorandum says the plan highlights the role of departmental boards and their non-executives with boards expected to test and scrutinise major projects at an early stage, before they start to implement, and meet regularly with the Major Projects Authority to discuss progress. It points out that although major projects are one of the priorities for non-executive scrutiny in 2012-13, the effectiveness of these controls and how far Parliament can rely on them depends on good quality, timely and transparent management information, on which there is further to go.

It adds that the government has committed to publishing the Major Projects Authority's annual report, and "is in the process of deciding on the timing and mechanism for this."

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