Central government bodies are not making the best use of the business cases in digital transformation, according to a new thinktank report.
The Institute for Government (IfG) has said this is a serious issue for government and that there is a need for a new strategic approach and better guidance on the use of business cases.
Titled The hidden obstacles to government digital transformation, the analysis examines current practice and is based on interviews with 30 current and former civil servants, academics and other experts and a review of publicly available documents.
It says that as of July this year, government had approved over £80 billion to spend on 41 major transformation programmes across 10 departments and one public body, at least 19 of which are focused on digital with a cost of almost £38 billion.
Problems often arise when departments and agencies are concerned with saving money in the short term and place more emphasis on the risks from change than those from not changing, which leads to business systems and services going well beyond their usable life.
The review says problems also arise from the business cases not being used as tools for managing transformation, often because the underlying vision is unclear or they fail to reflect the large scale and complexity of the change. Also, they often struggle to make a convincing economic case that can be approved when finances are tight, fail to effectively represent uncertainty, and can lock programmes into fixed and unrealistic timeframes.
Further problems arise from a siloed programme approach and a misuse of business cases, all of which undermines the chances of success in a transformation.
In response, the IfG makes two major recommendations, one of which is that the new strategic approach to digital transformation should be adopted more widely.
This involves accounting officers, executive teams and boards leading rather than delegating transformation, and the efforts becoming more central to single departmental plans (SDPs) and aligned with the Government’s Transformation Strategy. The SDPs should be used to manage progress, partly by providing the relevant funding.
Secondly, business case guidance needs to be improved and better applied. The IfG says the Transformation Peer Group should continue to codify best practice, assemble evidence and collect examples of delivering value for money, but also work harder to share these and ensure the new approaches are better understood around government.
Meanwhile, HM Treasury should update its guidance to align with the 7 Lenses guidance, which has been promoted by the Government as a way of support transformation. This would involve placing more weight on testing programmes rather than an unrealistic degree of certainty in initial business cases.
Its guidance should also recognise benefits that are hard to quantify, such as the capacity to respond more flexibly to policy changes.
In addition, “business plans should be clearer about the shape of future organisations,” says the introduction to the report. “Digital transformations should be managed less through programmes and more through supporting services leaders to continually improve their services.”
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