chief reporter Nick Heath argues that a lack of talent within Whitehall risks condemning the government’s IT strategy to failure.

Whitehall wants to give itself a bit of make-over when it comes to IT: a dazzling future based on cloud computing will replace a rather gloomy present more used to project over-runs and failures.

Few would disgree with the aspiration, but turning over a clean slate on IT, in an attempt to end decades of overspend and delays, is hard to do.

And right now, the odds of this being a succesful make-over are looking shaky. “Gaps in ICT capability remain a serious challenge” to the government implementing its new IT strategy, according to a report by the UK spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, published this week.

It seems the government lacks technological and strategic specialists in the very areas that are supposed to be at the heart of its IT reform. The core of the government’s new IT strategy is a shift to cloud services, the agile delivery of projects – carrying out projects iteratively rather than as big bang programmes – and making public services digital by default. Unfortunately these are precisely the areas where the NAO found the government wanting, identifying a shortfall in technical skills relating to agile project delivery and cloud computing – as well as below-par capabilities when it came to procurement, supplier relationship management and delivery of digital services.

Government lacks IT skills

The lack of IT skills available in government is a “serious challenge” to tech reform in Whitehall says the National Audit OfficePhoto: Shutterstock

This legacy of poor programme and supplier management in government could seemingly scupper its vision of IT reform, specifically its dream of a panoply of tech vendors supplying cloud services to the public sector and working together on agile government IT programmes.

As the NAO report puts it: “Suppliers told us that they doubted whether government had the appropriate skills to move from using one major supplier to deliver ICT solutions and services, to managing many suppliers of different sizes providing different services”.

For government to address the shortfall in skills needed to deliver its IT strategy the NAO estimates that over the next 18 months Whitehall will need to more than double the 70 staff that have worked on implementing the strategy to date.

The government has a long-term strategy for improving in-house IT capabilities, but if government’s past record on IT skills training is anything to go by there is a significant risk that Whitehall will miss this NAO target. In the three years since its creation in 2008, the government’s Technology in Business Fast Stream programme has placed only 47 staff in 10 departments, according to a report by the Public Administration Select Committee earlier this year.

And with the public sector mired in pay freezes and pension rows, working for the government is not the most attractive option for the brightest IT brains.

It’s vital that government gets IT reform right, and it seems to have good ideas and strong people at the top driving them through. But if the know-how necessary to realise these changes isn’t available on the ground then there’s is a danger that this latest bid to get government IT right will fail, like so many that have gone before. And that’s one Great British tradition that nobody wants to see continued.