A new report suggests recruitment in Westminster needs shaking up
A distinguished engineer with a storied industry reputation, dozens of patent applications to his name, and a Cambridge background tells of applying for a top cybersecurity role in Whitehall. This is a very complex and strategically important technical field, so he was surprised by what awaited him.
“I was asked nothing about technology or relevant work experience,” he tells me. “Out of seven interviewers on two interview panels, not one had a STEM degree or work experience — not one,” he recalls. “That is so unlikely to occur randomly, it must indicate that Whitehall is very keen to keep STEM graduates out of Whitehall tech jobs.”
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Lamenting twenty-five years of failure in the UK state’s deployment of technology, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has come to a very similar conclusion.
“Most senior leaders are generalists and do not have an operational services or technical background in digital or data,” the Committee concludes, in a report titled Challenges in implementing digital change published last week.
Government IT failures have become so monotonously frequent, we are astonished when one actually works. Occasionally the biggest disasters, such as the Universal Credit system or the NHS IT System make the front pages. Others don’t. For example, the state approved the installation of almost 15 million poorly specified smart meters, which quickly needed to be replaced. And we now learn that because our 2G and 3G mobile networks will be switched off, those replacements will be need to replaced too, by the end of the decade.
“The same systems and processes are built, dismantled and rebuilt over and over again,” three academics who contributed written evidence to the enquiry state; Whitehall is “stuck in loop”.
The Committee’s report is additionally useful for dismissing a number of technology fads beloved of Whitehall. It calls out “coding classes and master teach-ins”, which have saved many a bluffer from embarrassment in SW1. MBA-style training may be more useful instead, the PAC suggests.
Contributing academics, including one in Jerry Fishenden who has real operational experience, have some more useful tips too. In a side swipe at Martha Lane Fox’s creation, the Government Digital Services (GDS), they point out there is more to IT than putting forms online. GDS was once lauded by Whitehall commenters — “Geeks in jeans are revolutionising Whitehall,” was a typical Times headline from 2012.
GDS’ hallmark failure was a digital identity system which swallowed up at least £154 million before being abandoned. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak announced another new digital identity system, costing £400 million — and has given the job to the very same GDS. Have another go.
What’s needed is a cultural change beginning with recruitment. Former No10 adviser Dominic Cummings suggestion of ‘Red Teams’, a process idea pioneered by the US military, in which a group critically picks apart a proposal or project, identifying bogus consensus, is one that deserves merit.
Whitehall has already pre-empted the criticism. And its answer? “A data masterclass and updating talent schemes”. That sounds a lot like the “master teach-ins” the Committee doesn’t want to see, and it says this isn’t sufficient. This is particularly ominous as Whitehall is not only a technology user, but it’s becoming a technology chooser too, picking winners in the new era of dirigiste industrial policy.
The basic reason for the cultural inertia is twofold: the high value Whitehall places on smooth communication skills, and on consensus. Mavericks — what Dominic Cummings had in mind when he called for “assorted misfits and weirdos” — are most unwelcome. They might start to identify failure, which really won’t do.