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NAO criticises government on digital change

21/07/21

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Government has long been performing poorly on digital business change and needs a better understanding of the risks involved, according to a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

'Digital transformation' on screen

Titled The Challenges in Implementing Digital Change, it says that despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver change successfully, there is a consistent pattern of underperformance

This is often the result of decision makers fixing on technology solutions before fundamental aspects of projects and programmes are sufficiently thought through.

It has prompted the NAO to highlight six factors that have to be addressed to stand the best chance of success:

  • understanding aims, ambition and risk;
  • engaging with commercial partners;
  • the approach to legacy systems and data;
  • using the right mix of capability;
  • the choice of delivery methods;
  • and effective funding mechanisms.

It says these are particularly important for digital programmes because of the increased uncertainties that are usually involved, and that if the delivery implications are poorly understood the ambitions could be unrealistic from the outset.

Each of the issues comes with specific actions. The first, for example, includes avoiding unrealistic ambitions with unknown levels of risk and planning realistic timescales for delivery.

The NAO also recommends that the Central Digital and Data Office, the Government Digital Service and Cabinet Office review and apply the lessons learned from past failures and successes to improve the delivery of programmes across government.

This should involve revising existing training programme to better equip decision makers, and public bodies ensuring that senior digital, data and technology officials have a greater influence on relevant change programmes.

Reviews, evaluations, strategies

Other recommendations include: working with HM Treasury to review existing business case funding and approval processes for digital programmes; carrying out proper evaluation and assurance in the early stages of a programme; strengthening the intelligent client function; producing departmental strategies for the management of legacy IT estates; and applying agile principles to the change.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented: “Whilst digital leaders bring much needed expertise to the public sector, they often struggle to get the understanding and support they need from senior decision makers.

“There has been a consistent pattern of underperformance in delivering digital business change, often resulting from decisions on technology being taken too earlier, before the business problem is properly understood.

“Government must learn from past experience and better equip senior leaders if it is to improve its track record of delivering digital change.”

The report was compiled by the NAO interviewing senior digital leaders in government and the private sector and reviewing its previously published reports on specific projects.

Image from iStock, Putilich

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