NAO dissects Whitehall’s digital struggle

The digital value director of the National Audit Office has outlined continued problems for central government in its transformation initiatives

Four years on from the National Audit Office (NAO) Landscape Review of ICT in government, there is a much wider appreciation of how digital technology can transform services for the better. But the NAO sees departments and agencies still struggling to make progress, and in some cases lacking the vision to make it count.

richKeyboardRedGov400x266Yvonne Gallagher, director of digital value for money at the NAO, made no bones about the continuing shortcomings when she spoke at the Central Government Business and Technology Conference, staged by Whitehall Media, this week.

She presented the perspective of the NAO based on a series of internal reports for departments over the past four years. They have been produced for guidance well before important projects come under the high profile scrutiny of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, and the combined view amounts to an informal, condensed update of the 2011 review.

No organisations were mentioned in the presentation, but it provided a perspective that could create discomfort in parts of Whitehall.

GOV.UK success

Gallagher said there has been a notable success in the development of GOV.UK and the rationalisation of central government websites. But this does not amount to a transformation.

When it comes to the broader potential of digital, central government has raised its game in some respects since 2011, but still has a long way to go to get the full savings and performance improvements.

“Over the past four years there have been a lot of initiatives and a number of NAO reports on digital and IT, and we’ve built a huge body of our own knowledge,” Gallagher said. “We’re now trying to identify the improvements of the past four years, but core questions remain, such as how to improve the use of core data and digital.”

One of the problems is familiar: “We need people capable of leading the change. We still see a traditional leadership that lacks real engagement with the digital agenda.”

This leads to difficulties in a number of areas. She said the past four years have been characterised by an attempt to exert more control from the centre, notably through the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), and this has led to a build-up of expertise and expectations about how government should handle transformation. But departments are still not sufficiently focused on digital to make this count.

Gallagher cited the 25 exemplar services developed under the Government Digital Transformation Strategy, in which there was a widespread grasp of the importance of changing the user interface and provide better navigation on websites, and that agile was increasingly used for the development of online services. There were also some good examples of measuring customer take-up and adherence to standards.

But there has often been a lack of clarity around the re-engineering of business processes and it has been difficult to prove if it has delivered savings. Also, policies and strategies for projects have often been open to different interpretations and therefore difficult to implement.

Limited efficiencies

“We saw some efficiencies around the experiences of the Public Services Network, but haven’t yet seen a lot of efficiencies around shared services,” she said.

“Government departments are at different stages, and some have very ambitious strategies, but even at the strategy stage the measurements of efficiency and success are not really clear, and this will make it difficult.”

“There have been lots of policies and strategies but no enforcement of compliance and a lack of measurement,” she said. “Governance in government is difficult. There have been a lot of high profile failed IT projects, and a lack of good governance has been a major contribution.”

The use of agile methodology – which has had plenty of advocates in the past five years – has so far had mixed success, partly because there has been a lack of understanding of the governance around it, and because some organisations still rely heavily on the more traditional PRINCE2 approaches that have not incorporated agile.

Skills gap

Further problems have arisen from a lack of digital skills around Whitehall, and although this is acknowledged in departments it will be difficult to overcome as private sector salaries are often more attractive to likely candidates.

Gallagher said the NAO is inviting views from departments and agencies on what could be done to ease this problem. It is part of the overall problem that she conveyed in her summary: “The main challenge in creating new digital models is with the business leadership and capacity and capability in government.”

It has not been decided whether or when the NAO will publish a new Landscape Review, but it would be no surprise if these themes find their way into its reports on individual projects. The hope for all is that Whitehall chiefs will react to the criticisms before things go that far.