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The tectonic plates of technology are shifting, but can digital skills in the UK keep up?

The government decreased its digital, data and technology apprenticeships by 20% between October 2021 and December 2022 (Alamy)

3 min read

Hailed as our first ‘tech bro’ prime minister, Rishi Sunak loves to talk about the UK’s potential as a world leader in digital technology. But with government departments and public services facing a huge digital skills gap, he has a challenge on his hands. Zoe Crowther reports

“At a moment like this, when the tectonic plates of technology are shifting, we cannot rest, satisfied with where we stand,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared, opening his speech at London Tech Week last month.

There are concerns that the government is indeed not standing still, but actually moving backwards: A National Audit Office (NAO) report published in March showed there had been a 20 per cent reduction in government digital, data and technology apprenticeships from 800 in October 2021 to 637 in December 2022.

Government digital, data and technology vacancies increased by seven per cent from 3,900 in April 2022 to 4,100 in October 2022, and only four per cent of civil servants are digital professionals compared to an industry average of between eight and 12 per cent.

There are some in Westminster who hope to change that. Labour MP Nick Smith helped to set up a “Cyber Hub” in a college in his Wales constituency last year to train young people for the cyber security industry, which has since received attention from government agencies and global technology firms looking to expand and diversify talent.

The Welsh MP tells The House that while there were some “good things” in the NAO report, the decision to cut apprenticeships was “terrible” and he challenged officials on the figures at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in May. “The officials were, to be honest, very embarrassed,” Smith says. “This was a straight government decision to cut the headcount of digital apprentices. Can you think of a more backward-looking decision?”

Megan Lee Devlin, Chief Executive of the Central Digital and Data Office, explained the decision as being a result of “headcount restrictions”. “Departments had to make some challenging trade-offs around hiring specialists who are more trained, or apprentices who require a bit more investment in skills,” she told the committee hearing. “That was very challenging for us as a function.”

Apprenticeships are seen as particularly valuable for those entering technological industries, but are also a vital part of incorporating digital transformation into the public sector, according to Doniya Soni-Clark, head of policy at Multiverse, a company founded by Euan Blair in 2016 to provide apprenticeship programmes.

“In any organisation, developing a strong pipeline of tech, data and digital skills is essential,” she tells The House. “These skills are vital to delivering the public sector’s key functions and must be part of the culture of government, rather than siloed in specific tech teams.”

“In any organisation, developing a strong pipeline of tech, data and digital skills is essential"

Jack Worlidge, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, agrees: “Improving digital skills in the civil service is essential – including for identifying efficiency savings and improving citizens’ experience of online services. However, the figures published by the NAO show that big recruitment challenges remain. The government has more work to do in attracting talented experts from outside the civil service.

“While the pay on offer will not be able to compete with the private sector, there are other measures – such as shortening recruitment timeframes and better selling the unique nature of working in government – that the civil service should pursue.”

Improving apprenticeship pathways in government may help to pave the way to Sunak’s tech superpower dream, but Labour MP Darren Jones told TechUK’s Tech Policy Leadership Conference that he thinks more fundamental change is needed: “The incentive framework is just entirely wrong and the thing that I always encourage my colleagues on a cross-party basis to think about in Westminster is don’t just try to use the old levers to solve these problems… because they evidently don’t work.”

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