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Parliament committee bemoans government digital record

10/12/21

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Houses of Parliament

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has published a highly critical report on central government’s record on major digital transformation programmes.

It has claimed there has been poor leadership, no clear plan to update legacy systems, a failure to understand the difference between improvements and transformation and other shortcomings.

The publication – titled Challenges in implementing digital change – intensified the criticisms raised in a National Audit Office report on the subject during the summer, and has come soon after the PAC released a report with strong criticisms of the Home Office’s performance in developing the National Law Enforcement Data Service.

It says there has been progress over the past decade and some recent success stories, such as the Covid-19 furlough schemes; but most of these have not been large scale transformational programmes, and the committee is sceptical about the ability to succeed in this area.

It identifies significant problems in ministers spending a relatively short time in one post and permanent secretaries typically serving just five-year terms, neither of them often remaining for the entire duration of a major programme.

This means that digital change planning needs to be a core activity for Whitehall to deliver as ‘business as usual’.

Six key points

The report provides six main conclusions and recommendations, the first being that too many senior government leaders do not have the know-how for making good decisions and driving digital change. This requires the Cabinet Office to develop a robust and certifiable education process aimed at ministers, departmental boards and senior civil servants, and to make certification a prerequisite for key roles.

Secondly, there is no clear plan to replace or modernise legacy systems and data that are critical for services and hold back transformation. The PAC recommends that the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) should work with departments to map the legacy systems and use it to produce a pipeline of work for their replacement, which it should share with the committee.

Third is that departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what exists and real digital transformation and have missed opportunities for modern ways of working. In response, the Cabinet office and departments should introduce a structured way of deciding whether changes are incremental improvements or a transformational redesign of processes.

Next, there is often no single programme office to support the director and align all aspects of the effort. This prompts a call for the Cabinet Office to develop guidance on approaching legacy integration and to mandate rigorous and professional design, data and infrastructure controls and practices.

Fifth is that departments have failed to develop a modern professional approach to IT operations needed to support business change and have become over-reliant on outsourcing. The report recommends that the CDDO should set out what departments need to put in place to improve their approach to IT operations and change. This should cover what the intelligent client function should do, the influence of digital specialist leaders, who should be accountable for contracting and the assurance mechanisms for the lifecycle of a programme.

Finally, there is a large gap between the demand for and supply of digital specialists, and it is hard to get the right balance of in-house and outsourced skills. The committee says the CDDO should write to it within six months setting out how it intends to measure progress against its capability strategy and to report on progress annually.

Plague of short termism

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier MP commented: “The short termism that plagues so much critical policy delivery is nowhere more evident than in government’s staggering efforts to bring crucial, national IT systems into the current century and up to functional speed.

“The merry-go-round of ministers and permanent secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through major, essential major digital change programmes.

“Instead, we hobble on with dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous systems that devour precious resources but aren’t protecting our borders, aren’t helping emergency services save lives, don’t support our national defence or the personnel who risk their lives in service of it and don’t help catch the people falling through the gaping holes in our welfare safety net.

“Nation, citizen and taxpayer deserve much better than this and we’ll continue to challenge departments in front of us until they get it.”

Image from iStock, tony4urban

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