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NAO digital lead calls for broader skills



Sally Howes says government needs new metrics and skills to ensure value of digital projects

Government needs to develop new metrics and a broader range of skills to get on top of its digital transition, according to a senior official of the National Audit Office (NAO).

Dr Sally Howes, executive leader, digital and innovation at the NAO, told UKAuthority there is a need people with more than core technology skills, especially in being able to harness and analyse data to assess the progress of digital initiatives. This reflects a further need for different ways of assessing the total costs of ownership and value from large scale digital projects.

Howes said the nature of digital projects is changing, and should not be as big or complex as in the past, but that government does not yet have a full understanding of how to assess their value. The NAO is beginning to look at this, but suggested that it
"We can't be sure of the metrics at the moment," she said. "We are looking at all of the projects we've looked at on IT and digital to extract lessons on what the metrics might be. If we can we will put it into the debate."
Meanwhile, the civil service needs people with a new range of skills to ensure the projects provide value for money. These relate to a growing use of real time information and complex data, and go beyond the core technology skills - which she said are being fostered by the Government Digital Service - to include areas such as analytics to assess the value.

Primary challenge

Howes told the techUK Public Services 2030 Conference that: "The primary (challenge) is that in the old world, government and Parliament and audit bodies had a fairly good understanding of why IT projects were so big, consumed so much resource and were quite difficult to control. But I think the value being created in this new digital government world is still being established, and I don't think we fully understand it yet.
"The logic of the GDS and government policy is quite easy to follow, and there is best practice in the private sector, but markets sort things out differently to government. All of the things that have taken place, such as the digital exemplars and departments trying to change IT contracts, provide an important amount of learning."
In response, she said the NAO and government has to look at developments in seven areas to make a success of the move to digital services:

  • Demonstrating value;
  • Understanding what is needed from leadership, notably in maintaining public trust;
  • Assessing the government's role in setting standards for its digital platforms, especially in areas such as data and information assurance;
  • Balancing innovation and the fast progress of technology with the costs and risks around public services;
  • Developing skills at a pace that can keep up with technology changes;
  • Applying intelligent governance, in a way that does not stifle innovation;
  • Obtaining access to new technologies and innovation from beyond government.


Pictured: Dr Sally Howes, courtesy of National Audit Office

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