A lack of cyber security experts in Whitehall should “send a chill down the government’s spine”, according to a new report.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said there was a “digital skills shortage” across departments, with just 4.5% of the civil service made up of tech professionals – compared to between 8% and 12% in the private sector.
And it said the lack of expertise – with some of it “self-inflicted” due to job cuts – could end up costing more in the long run as “opportunities to transform are foregone” and legacy systems fail.
Chair of the cross-party committee, Labour’s Dame Meg Hillier, said: “Digital must not be treated merely as a side-line, but must sit right at the heart of how government thinks about delivery.
“Without swift and substantial modernisation, opportunities to improve services for the public will continue to be lost.”
But the government insisted it had a “comprehensive programme in place” for recruitment and training.
According to the PAC, there were fewer than half of the digital, data and technology professionals than were needed across Whitehall, including data architects and info security pros.
Pay constraints were one of the major factors in the recruitment failure, as when it came to those professionals who can demand a premium – especially cyber security experts – public sector budgets could not compete with private company job offers.
However, the committee said the skills shortage had also been “self-inflicted through counter-productive staffing cuts”, with the number of digital employees “rationed” across departments – especially apprenticeships.
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The report said the government was “trying to improve pay for specialist roles, and considers that this is improving the situation”.
But the MPs said their aims would “not be achieved and the cost to government will be much more over the longer term if opportunities to transform are delayed or foregone and reliance on legacy systems is prolonged”.
Of the tech services the government did provide, just 10 of the top 75 were described as “great” when it came to ease of use and efficient provision – but 45 “require significant improvement”, and there was a lack of a “single point of accountability” for each one.
And with infrastructure already aging, failing to tackle all the above would lead to increased costs in the future and risks to IT security.
“Our inquiry has found that Whitehall’s digital services, far from transforming at the pace required, are capable of only piecemeal and incremental change,” said Dame Meg.
“Departments’ future-proofing abilities are hobbled by staff shortages, and a lack of support, accountability and focus from the top. In particular, a lack of cyber-security experts should send a chill down the government’s spine.
“The government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them.
“Our inquiry leaves us unconvinced that these aims will be achieved in the face of competing pressures and priorities.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the government had a “comprehensive programme in place for recruiting and retaining technical skills and training civil servants in the vital digital skills needed to deliver modern public services”.
They added: “This includes increasing the size of the specialist digital, data and technology function across departments by over 10%, boosting access to digital training and improving specialist digital and data pay through reinvesting efficiency savings.
“We’re stepping up our cyber security skills through increasing training and investment in developing cyber security skills at all levels, including Cyber Boot Camps and uptake in computer science.”