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Survey report: Developing the government's IT capabilities for a digital future

03/08/15

Introduction


This survey report outlines key findings from a recent Dods/Civil Service World (CSW) and Capita IT Professional Services survey of more than 1,200 public sector workers from across the UK. The focus of the survey was on IT skills, with a particular interest in mapping the abilities of graduate employees to help realise the government’s digital strategy. 

The survey revealed that graduate IT recruits to the civil service do not always meet the expectations of their employers. This can lead to project delays or cancellations, as well as increased costs for the government.

Part of the challenge is to do with the way the Civil Service recruits and nurtures its IT professionals. Respondents highlighted a reliance on traditional recruitment and training methods, saying that they may not provide the most effective way of ensuring the public sector has the right talent to realise its digital strategy. 

A further feature of the findings was notable enthusiasm among many respondents for closer working relationships with private sector providers. The traditional supplier-customer model is being rethought, and there is an appetite to form constructive partnerships between the government and commercial organisations in order to share expertise, capability and accountability between the public and private sectors.

Click here to download the report.


Background: forming capabilities in a changing world


When Sir Bob Kerslake launched the Civil Service Capabilities Plan in April 2013, he highlighted the need for the public sector workforce to adapt its skills over the next five years. “The world is changing and so is the Civil Service,” he asserted, before arguing for a “more rigorous approach to improving skills and performance,” in which every employee takes responsibility for their professional development. 

This need is especially apparent in relation to the government’s digital agenda, which is at the very heart of Civil Service Reform. Although great progress has already been made in this area, Francis Maude recently stated that there is work to be done if the public sector is to make the most of new technologies such as cloud computing. 

A principal focus for the Civil Service is therefore ensuring that employees have the skills needed to embrace a digital future. That’s exactly what the CSW and Capita IT Professional Services survey focused on, in an attempt to establish what is needed to equip the public sector workforce for the next five years of progress.

In what follows, we report the findings in more detail, identifying trends that arise from the answers provided by respondents from across the Civil Service, working in a variety of roles.

Mind the gap: plotting a skills shortage in graduate IT recruits


Asked if recent IT graduates in their department have adequate skills for their role, 32% of respondents who expressed an opinion said they were not meeting all expectations. Coupled with the 11% who said the skills of such people were either “somewhat” or “very” inadequate, this points to many civil servants who are not satisfied with the capabilities of graduate IT colleagues when they join the Civil Service. 

Fig 1: Do you feel that recent IT graduates in your organisation have started work equipped with the necessary skill set for their role?

Particular failings were identified in areas like back-office fundamentals (69% identified weaknesses here) and business acumen (78% said skills in this area were lacking), while 77% stated that recent graduates lack practical experience of the workplace. 

Fig 2: Do you feel that universities equip current IT graduates adequately with the following skills and competencies?


No less significant are the 22% of respondents who believe recent graduates lack the knowledge of specific development techniques and principles that are crucial to their jobs. Even though this reflects a minority view in the findings, it is further evidence of a skills gap at the heart of public sector IT.

Identifying a skills gap is one thing, but the real issue is its impact on the delivery of public services. Here, the survey respondents were quick to recognise a link between the failings of IT graduates and impaired performance by their organisation. 

For example, 38% said they had been forced to bring in outside contractors to compensate for the lack of skills among their graduate workforce, leading to increased costs for their department. Moreover, 21% said they had spent more on training, in order to equip employees with the necessary skills. 

Fig 3: How does a lack of skills in IT graduates impact your organisation?


A more dramatic impact is the failure in service delivery reported by a significant proportion of those surveyed. Almost 32% said the lack of skills among IT graduates had led to an inability to deliver services within agreed timeframes, while 21% said they had not been able to keep projects within budget. A further 14% said their department had been unable to develop new services for citizens, because of a lack of in-house skills. 

Fig 4: How does a lack of skills in IT graduates impact the services your organisation delivers externally?


Individual comments on the survey indicate further problems associated with the graduate skills shortage. One senior IT professional spoke of the reputational cost to a department when its workforce does not have the skills needed to deliver a digitised service successfully. Meanwhile, an operational delivery specialist said that a “lack of business understanding [among graduates] is a drain on existing resources” – which may explain the reluctance of some departments to recruit graduate IT specialists in the first place. 

There is no shortage of solutions, of course, and many were identified by the survey respondents. For example, one policy specialist said the Civil Service needs “adequately sourced training and specialist help to build appropriate skills for the government workforce.”

A communications officer said there needed to be “cooperation between the public and private sectors” in delivering such training, while a colleague working in HR made it plain that accreditation is vital to ensuring the quality of training programmes. 

These sentiments echo what is found in the Capabilities Plan, which also suggests greater use of seconded private-sector employees in government departments. This could cut both ways, as a finance expert recognised when he suggested that civil servants undertake placements in commercial organisations to develop their skills and experience. 

Collaboration of this sort is positive, and could bring real gains for the public sector. Moreover, a programme and project management specialist stressed the importance of private-sector suppliers transferring skills into the Civil Service, rather than simply delivering projects and then moving on. Without that, as many respondents argued, there is little long-term benefit to the public sector from such relationships.

Recognising talent, recruiting for success


As well as developing the in-house skills of the Civil Service workforce, the survey indicates a need for the public sector to address its recruitment processes. Asked how their departments tend to advertise entry-level IT jobs, respondents overwhelmingly opted for traditional methods such as adverts on departmental websites (28%) and internal recruitment (25%). In other words, more than a half of those questioned said that early career opportunities in IT were not widely advertised among external audiences. 

Against a backdrop of strong competition for candidates, many recognised that this is a surprising state of affairs. As an operational delivery specialist from DWP stated, the UK’s employers fight over a relatively small number of high-quality applicants for IT vacancies. So if the Civil Service is to recruit the very best graduate trainees, it needs to rethink its recruitment processes in order to deliver better results – a view expressed by a number of respondents when invited to contribute personal comments. 

What is more, 87% of respondents said they were unaware of structures in their organisation to identify and nurture talent among IT graduates. It could be argued that many civil servants are simply not informed of all talent schemes in their department, but the proportions of HR and IT staff who were unaware of a talent identification scheme for IT graduates was also high: 76% and 60% respectively. This suggests that, even when appointments are made, departments struggle to unleash the potential of new staff or help them acquire new skills.

Capita’s Novus Programme: helping the government up-skill its workforce


Despite their reservations about existing recruitment methods, respondents were keen to stress that any changes to established systems should focus on developing in-house capabilities. In fact, 29% said that, where a new recruitment method is being pursued to enhance IT skills in their department, it is centred on developing in-house training programmes.

On a related point, while 15% said that their departments were exploring new supplier relationships to help with either recruitment or outsourcing in IT, the consistent message from respondents' additional comments was that any input by the private sector should serve to up-skill, rather than disempower, the public sector workforce. 

Such a philosophy lies at the very heart of Capita’s Novus Programme. This programme meets many of the challenges posed by the survey findings. It is designed to enhance the skills of the government workforce and make it easier to recruit high-quality IT graduates into the Civil Service. In consequence, Capita says it responds to the two key issues that arise from the CSW/Capita IT Professional Services survey. 

Because Novus candidates are recruited using Capita’s proven method, which whittles down some 400 applicants to just a handful of the most able IT graduates, the Civil Service can be assured of the quality of appointees. Then, once accepted onto the programme, Capita provides real world project focussed training before sending candidates out to work as part of a client’s own team.

Capita retains the employment risk and responsibility for the training and development of Novus young IT professionals through the two years of their programme. It equips them with industry-standard qualifications from the likes of Microsoft and Oracle, and ensures they have the best opportunities to realise their full potential. 

At the end of the two years, the client has the chance to appoint their candidate on a permanent basis, ensuring the skills, qualifications and experience they have garnered transfer directly into their organisation. 

This is just the sort of partnership that the Capabilities Plan calls for more of, and which the CSW/Capita IT Professional Services survey respondents identified as being able to meet the public sector IT graduate skills shortage. It is well tested, too, with a number of blue-chip companies in the UK already benefiting from the Novus programme. 

By way of example, a Software Quality Assurance Manager at Azzurri Communications says: “Using Novus gave us a third more time for our money vs traditional contract solutions, enabling us to deliver our project on time. The interaction and relationships the Novus test analyst has built within the team are outstanding. He is not an individual but part of our team.”

Other Capita clients, including Ofgem, speak of the difference their Novus candidates make to the speed of project delivery in their organisation. This benefit of the scheme is sure to appeal to government departments that are working hard to keep up with the digital agenda, especially given the impact of the IT skills gap on delivery that was reported by survey respondents.

Concluding remarks: bridging gaps


With a relatively large sample of respondents, it is interesting to note the common themes that emerge from the CSW/Capita IT Professional Services survey. Broadly, they point to an IT skills gap in the Civil Service. This is especially apparent among graduate recruits, who do not seem to possess the skills needed to perform their duties adequately. 

In their question responses and free comments, those surveyed were quick to identify ways of dealing with this challenge. These include greater cooperation with the private sector, geared towards transferring skills into government that are retained once a contract has finished. In addition, respondents recognised a need to adopt recruitment practices that attract the very best IT specialists, augmented by in-house training to release their potential. 

If the survey helps identify how to deal with the IT skills shortage in government, it also reveals the pressing need to do so. Without remedial action, there is a danger that projects and programmes will continue to fall short of their targets. Perhaps more importantly, public money will be spent unwisely, and in ways that the survey respondents agree are easily avoided.
 
Taken together, the survey findings constitute a revealing commentary on the public sector’s readiness to meet the challenges of the next five years. More importantly, they provide the beginnings of a roadmap to developing the sort of digital expertise that is at the very heart of the Civil Service Reform agenda.

Methodology


An invitation to complete this online survey was sent to CSW’s database of civil servants in April 2014, and the survey remained open for two weeks. 1202 civil servants responded to the survey. Some totals may not add up to 100%, due to rounding.

For more information about the Novus programme, click here.
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