Filling government’s digital skills gap

Interview: Holly Ellis, director of capability for digital, data and technology at GDS, points to where there are skills shortages and explains how her team is supporting efforts to fill them

Considering that government seems to be faced with a perpetual shortage of digital skills, Holly Ellis is extremely upbeat in talking about it. In conversation with journalists at the Cabinet Office Sprint 18 conference she acknowledges the problems but clearly sees the glass as being more than half full.

Holly EllisAs director of capability for digital, data and technology at the Government Digital Service (GDS) she places a lot of emphasis on what it has done in building a capability framework for the relevant skills that applies to all of central government.

“We’ve built a capability framework, which is 37 roles across government needed to build a digital service,” she says. “Within that we’ve identified the types of skills needed at different levels, so departments are much more aware of whether they need, for example, an entry level developer with specific skills to make use of different components and build a service.

“We’ve laid out all the roles and skills expected to help departments make those decisions.

“It’s particularly hard to get people with many years of experience developing different technologies with deep levels of expertise. But that’s not uncommon across the market; everyone is after the same sorts of people.”

The difficult six

She says that of the 37 roles GDS has identified six are particularly hard to fill, around software development and data science, and for DevOps engineers – skills for which there is a high demand in the broader market.

One of the established approaches to cope with this is to pair people up, matching an experienced person paired with another who is quite junior to work together on a project.

Another is to provide access to different learning tools, an area on which the GDS team is always working. Ellis points to the recent provision of online learning packages for new coding languages, although she acknowledges it can be a big challenge to keep up.

“In some areas technology is moving forward faster than you can build the capability. At some point, even at the more experienced end, those people might not have the skills for the technologies we want to use today. It’s a continually moving picture, but we have a few tactics and plans to address the fact we are never going to be able to hire all those top technical people.”

There is also the more oblique approach, winning plenty of support in the public sector, of building platforms and components that reduce the need for in-depth skills to build services.

“You’ve heard about building common components, which allows departments not to have the same level of skillsets or deep expertise to deliver the same outcomes. So the more that GDS can deliver those solutions and take away some of that burden, it can address of the point of whether they need the same numbers of people with a high level of technical capability.”

Brexit effect

Another factor is becoming increasingly significant with the approach of Brexit, both in terms of whether it will make it harder to recruit non-UK nationals with the right skills, and the amount of effort some departments are having to make in preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU.

Ellis says the team at GDS has been collecting data to establish how much effort is going into ‘business as usual’ and how much to Brexit preparations, pointing out the differences and helping departments assess whether they can redeploy resources to the latter. She says it has been “a really helpful exercise” and contributed to the wider assessment of capabilities.

“The other thing it gave us in our central role in providing strategic initiatives to plug some of the capability gaps was to identify high demand for a particular kind of role.

“So we published an expression of interest for a way of recruiting people internally; people who were outside of our digital and data intelligence profession could apply for a training programme to become a delivery manager in government. Over 150 people applied, we ran assessments of about 50, and 20 have been successful and we’re deploying them to the departments most impacted by EU exit.

“It’s the first time we’ve done something where we’ve said ‘Here’s the data, this is what it’s telling us, we can provide the training’. They’re starting in their roles in June and are going through our deep learning programme to become mentors.”

Interns and apprentices

Further down the scale there is also plenty of attention to training newcomers. Ellis says that new programmes have been developed for two of the six critical roles identified in the capability framework, for business analysts and software engineers.

The latter has been condensed into a 12-month programme, under which 25 university students are given two-week foundation courses in digital, data and technology, then deployed to a department to work on a project for six weeks.

The business analyst programme has not yet got under way, although it is open for applications.

She adds: “There’s a lot of work for us to do on apprenticeships. We held an event a couple of weeks ago for teachers at which we aimed to bridge the gap for school students to understand what is available to them. We’ve got a lot of work to do in that space.

“Apprenticeships used to mean something different but now it can be a route into a really interesting job. These new ones are a helpful start but there’s still a lot for us to do.”

Academy role

Of course, much of this work is delivered through the GDS Academy, which was migrated from the Department for Work and Pensions a year ago. Ellis emphasises that it is not just for central government, saying that 15-20% of participants are from local government.

Similarly, she says the capability framework and the other assets created by the team are also for wider use, and that the academy has facilities around the country.

Nobody expects miracles from this, and government is likely to be in a perpetual game of catch-up given the rapid change in technology and financial resources of big private sector organisations. But Ellis says that one of the big selling points is in the challenge and satisfaction of developing digital solutions for public services.

“People have different reasons for it being hard to recruit, and our role is to help take away some of those barriers, and a lot of it is about telling our story in the right way regardless of all the processes that sit behind it. One of the most important things is being able to tell our story of why it’s great to work for government.”