My Lords, the Government are already taking action to build digital skills at scale and have a clear road map, set out in the Transforming for a Digital Future strategy, which we published in June 2022. The road map has set a target to upskill at least 90% of senior civil servants in digital and data by 2025 and to strengthen the attraction and retention of digital talent by bolstering the Government’s recruitment brand and pay offer for specialist skills.
My Lords, the Government claim that their 2022-25 digital and data road map will usher in a
“new era of digital transformation”
for public service improvement, yet Civil Service skills are clearly inadequate to deliver it. As the NAO has pointed out, there has been
“a consistent pattern of underperformance”
in public services for many years. What will be different this time? Is not the road map another example of this Government’s wishful thinking?
It is important to have an ambition and a road map if you are going to move things forward. We have a Prime Minister who regards the digital and data area as very important. We have set out our digital future strategy, which includes, on the point that the noble Lord is concerned about, that 90% of senior civil servants will be upskilled in digital and data through that programme. Digital professionals will also have top-up training every year. We are moving to recruit a lot more civil servants in the digital and data area; we have 4,000 vacancies, which is too many, but we are doing everything that we can to attract more people. This includes a capability-based pay scheme and much more focus on the regions, where we believe that we can get more digital talent out of the universities, often working away from London in centres such as Cardiff and Darlington.
My Lords, to pick up that last point, the Government’s own digital tsar—the head of digital services—does not underestimate the difficulty of attracting those professional staff because of the salary issue. Does the Minister think that this road map will properly address that? Is it not about time we spent less on consultants, who we are paying millions for, and more on the wages of our digital experts in the Civil Service?
I believe that is actually the direction of travel. We are bringing in more of a capability-based pay scheme, which will allow us to track and keep these people who are in hot demand in a competitive market—as I know only too well. The Civil Service jobs are very interesting; if we could sort out a route for people to come in and work on digital data, and perhaps even go out again, and so improve our skills and work on these important projects, that would make a huge difference. The establishment of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology—DSIT—is going to make a difference as well, in setting the tone and encouraging people to come and work on the very real data and skills challenges that we now have in the Civil Service.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the Question about skills but values are just as important as skills in the digital space. Could the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what the Government intend by way of promoting fundamental rights and freedoms in that space—whether it is the right not to be degraded, the right to personal digital privacy, the right not to be discriminated against or, crucially, the right to decisions on things that matter being made by a human being and not an algorithm?
The noble Baroness raises important points, and these are going to be debated a lot in the Online Safety Bill. In the Civil Service, we have a clear set of values—public service values. The Central Digital and Data Office is set up to look at how best to transform public services, but in a way that is appropriately balanced between using things such as AI and making sure that people’s rights and responsibilities are protected. We have the Data Protection Act and the Information Commissioner’s Office to help us in that process.
My Lords, having been at one stage a civil servant colleague of the current Minister, and declaring my interest as someone who went on to become a Minister and who has a daughter who has taken the same path from one to the other, I ask if we could have a gentle assurance that the Minister will use her best endeavours to ensure that these healthy disciplines are extended to Members of His Majesty’s Government as well. If they understand what civil servants are talking about, they can challenge it and produce a better overall conclusion.
It is a pleasure to see the noble Lord in his place; I congratulate him on his return and on his daughter’s eminence. The answer is that of course Ministers need to be educated in digital and data matters as well. We are doing our own small part in the Cabinet Office by ensuring that the induction that Ministers are given on security, for example, has a suitable data element. There is the broader point of what data can bring to growth and science. I earlier referenced the new department, DSIT, which is symptomatic of the change that we are trying to make in government to think more of AI, the cloud and data. To go back to the noble Baroness’s point, we are also trying to make sure that we are thinking about people and values at the same time.
My Lords, the British Government are lagging behind several of their European counterparts in digital transformation. Can the Minister say what she regards as the other obstacles, apart from lack of skills? Are there still legal obstacles, in that the way data is handled by different departments is different under existing Acts, or are there other obstacles that we need to tackle in order to catch up with the Baltic states and others that have gone a great deal further in moving towards efficient digital government?
I used to sit on the Competitiveness Council in Brussels, in the days when we were in the EU, and learned a lot from the Estonians—but of course they have a much smaller country and they were able to start everything digitally. I think people have admired us for the step we took, now 10 years ago, with GOV.UK, hosting all government paperwork and data. That now has 99% recognition across the UK, which I find very surprising. To answer the question, there are of course difficulties. Digital skills, which is the subject of this Question, is probably the biggest difficulty, but data sharing is also very important. We are finding this with all the various data initiatives we are doing—for example, I am working on borders—where being able to share data between companies, or to share individuals’ data between departments, is extremely important. We are gradually making sure that we are getting the right powers to do that in different areas as Bills come before your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend the Minister is absolutely right to say that countries such as Estonia and Latvia were able to leap-frog—they did not have the encumbrance of legacy technologies. Can she tell us the thinking around how legacy technology—not only the technology itself but the processes around that technology—can often hold back progress?
I can tell my noble friend a lot about what we did at Tesco on this matter. We had a spaghetti junction of old technology and what we did—I am sure noble Lords will be interested in this—was bring in systems that were compatible with one another. We gradually got rid of the spaghetti junction of technology and moved to new technology across the board. It is about those sorts of principles. Alex Burghart, the very energetic Minister concerned, heads at ministerial level the Central Digital and Data Office. It is these sorts of issues that we are looking at, so as to make sure that the transformation to digital that we need is efficient, smooth and speedy, and does not cause lots of legacy problems. I think we all know of experiences in different government departments where these already exist.
I share my noble friend’s concern. I will say that artificial intelligence and robotics are actually improving efficiency in some of the services that one uses, such as banking, so that we move through the telephone options and find a person, but they are absolutely no substitute, to my mind, for having proper customer care where that is needed. There is sometimes a risk that we can get exclusion and other problems if we go too far over the top. That is why I emphasised the importance of this new department and the ability it will have to devote more attention to these sorts of incredibly important issues. AI can be a plus but it can also be a risk. We really need to look internationally and do everything that we can.