Interview: Labour MP Chi Onwurah reveals what she thinks of the Government Digital Service.
Civil servants lack the IT skills required to deliver digital change, according to Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Chi Onwurah.
In an interview with CBR, Onwurah argues that the expertise of CTOs and COOs in the public sector does not reflect that of frontline staff responsible for delivering digital change.
She says: "This Government has been successful in attracting great digital talent to the Government Digital Service (GDS) and to key positions in other departments, but I haven’t been able to see a big up-skilling in the general level of skills.
"There’s a general lack of digital literacy. If you haven’t got the people and you haven’t got the skills you’re heading towards failure."
She has made improving public sector workers’ IT literacy a priority for Labour if it wins next year’s general election.
Her comments come after a BT survey of local government councils found just 25% wanted to invest in IT training, despite 75% recognising the benefits of digital skills in transforming the services they provide.
"That doesn’t surprise me," Onwurah admits. "I’m not saying it’s the local government’s fault.
"Technology is not the answer on its own. It’s how you use it and who use it and about taking people along with you. That’s really what should be being measured and monitored.
"We want to empower the frontline civil servants helping to create and deliver digital skills."
The telecoms giant’s white paper, ‘Public services: delivering the next generation of change‘, published last month, also found that 36% of the 400 respondents said staff lack sufficient levels of IT literacy, while 43% said social media skills were not good enough.
However, TechMarketView’s public sector analyst, Georgina O’Toole, says departmental IT skills have improved under the Coalition as it delivers more front-end change.
These changes include the GDS’s work in shifting basic services such as license applications online.
"Front-end digital capability has been boosted in the GDS but also within individual departments," O’Toole claims.
But she is uncertain how successful this will be.
"There is a question mark over how long this will work – there will only be so much work needed on the digital front-end, soon the focus will increasingly be on migrating legacy systems and enabling complex integration to occur to allow the front-ends to be effective," she says. "That may well require a lot more help from IT services companies."
The Cabinet Office challenges Onwurah’s claims, a spokesman stating: "Through our civil service reform programme, we are addressing long-standing gaps in digital skills in Whitehall."
Onwurah, the former head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, sees improving civil servants’ digital skills as key to helping improve the IT literacy of the general public.
Labour claims it differs from the Coalition, focusing more on enabling the neediest citizens via technology, as opposed to a focus on cutting spending.
But the opposition party is still reflecting on the 60 to 70 responses to its Digital Government Review, which will help shape its digital strategy, due to be announced this autumn.
"We’re really pleased by the breadth and depth of the submissions we’ve received," Onwurah says, though she admits that around 10% didn’t want to make their responses public.
A review submission from the Communication Workers Union (CWU) urged the party to go further when it comes to boosting IT skills, and address a BBC study that found 9.8 million adults lack basic abilities to go online.
"The CWU believes Labour should put forward a bolder plan for addressing the UK’s online skills deficit and invest in the training need to get everyone online," it reads. "This investment is justified when we consider the considerable economic benefits of getting everyone online."
And Onwurah is adamant in her view that the Coalition has not helped the neediest in society to access online services that could help them find work more easily.
"Digital inclusion has been forgotten by this Government," she states. "It was made incredibly evident by the fact it’s four years into this Government and Government Digital Service (GDS) before we got a digital inclusion strategy."
However, while she claims the GDS has not helped jobseekers get the necessary skills to apply for jobs online, she hails its achievements in shifting many services onto the web.
Now people can make licensing applications to their local councils online, while paper driving record are being replaced with an online system, released in public beta in March.
"There’s some concern around our approach to GDS I find difficult to understand," she says. "GDS has done fantastic work."
That could be the clearest sign yet she would keep the GDS intact was Labour to come into power, but Onwurah maintains that the service’s big oversight has been in helping the neediest.
"It’s been very Government-focused and it needs to become broader. We need to start looking at those difficult, knotty transactions where the vast majority of our most vulnerable citizens engage with government," she claims. "Those are likely to be the most vulnerable, but the transactions we’ve so far been automating are largely not for them."
She cites the example of Universal Credit, which to date has only around 8,000 claimants signed up. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) project aims to replace six benefits systems with one, but Onwurah labels the roll out, hampered by a range of IT issues, as "total chaos".
Last week saw the latest statistics for the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) scheme demonstrate that monthly uptake is at a near year-long low.
Just 540 people used the system to claim in May, compared to 1,150 in January.
Labour will instigate a three-month pause to assess the project if it comes into power next May.
Milton Keynes Council (which has no overall party control) previously told CBR that staff felt unprepared for Universal Credit, for the simple reason that there are no deadlines for rolling it out after the scheme was reset last Christmas following its failure to meet numerous targets.
Anne Jordan, welfare reform programme manager, said: "It’s something that’s looming away over the horizon. It’s difficult to keep the focus. People keep preparing for Universal Credit but it keeps going further away."
A Cabinet Office spokesman is keen to point out that is aims to bring together a raft of organisations from public, private and voluntary sectors who are committed to helping it improve the public’s IT literacy.
He adds: "Our Digital Inclusion strategy brings together public, private and voluntary sector organisations to help reduce the proportion of the population who are offline by 25% by 2016".
This is part one of a two-part interview. Tomorrow we’ll publish Onwurah’s take on G-Cloud, and Labour’s attitude to both Big IT and SMB IT suppliers.