CIOs in central government departments have blamed "public sector pay constraints" for the difficulties they face when trying to recruit and retain ICT staff.
A lack of flexibility in the civil service recruitment processes and a general shortage of skills were also cited as barriers to attracting the best IT skills, according to the National Audit Office's (NAO) survey of 17 central goverment CIOs.
The NAO report, 'A Snapshot of the Government's ICT Profession in 2011', revealed that the size of ICT functions range significantly across government departments. More than 1,000 IT staff work in the ICT business functions of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for example, while less than 50 work in the Department for Transport (DfT) and HM Treasury.
Areas where CIOs identified technical skills gaps included information security, architecture analysis and design and business analysis. Business skills in managing contractors and stakeholders, and in programme and project management, were also in need.
In terms of future IT skills, CIOs predicted that business skills such as programme and project managers, procurement specialists and business analysts would be in high demand over the next two to five years.
"ICT leaders will have to find innovative ways to develop skills to fill roles. Government cannot ignore the capability gaps because it is so reliant on ICT to conduct its future business," the NAO said.
It suggested "more novel" training methods than formal classroom training, for example, using structured on-the-job training and mentoring.
It added: "Greater collaboration across departments and with suppliers might also help to make optimum use of the skills that the profession already has to offer."
Another consequence of the budget constraints is that there has been a significant drop in the number of consultants employed by government departments. This is an area where the government has pledged to reduce spend, but some CIOs still admitted to depending too much on external resources.
"Very few consultants are now employed in departments with many needing to be replaced by internal ICT staff. We asked CIOs how reliant they were on consultants and interims in delivering complex projects. Most CIOs were satisfied with the extent to which they were relying on external resources, though in five departments, CIOs considered that they were over-reliant on these resources," the report said.
With the loss of external IT consultants, the report found that CIOs are now facing the challenge of replacing the skills in-house.
While three of the 17 CIOs said that transferring skills from the private sector was a departmental responsibility, most of the other CIOs called for the Cabinet Office to support this work.
"One CIO suggested that identifying the skills that need to be transferred from the private sector into central government might provide some focus for developing graduates on the TiB (Technology in Business fast-stream programme to develop future leaders in government ICT) scheme," the report said.
As of September 2011, there were 60 people on the TiB programme in 10 departments. A previous NAO report revealed that the scheme is one of the most popular civil service fast-stream programmes, attracting more applications per place compared with other programmes.
The NAO warned, however, that: "As consultants have already moved out of departments there is likely to be some challenge for Cabinet Office in addressing this issue."