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The challenges in implementing digital change

To deliver digital business change effectively, senior government decision makers need to better understand the business, technical and delivery risks associated with digital programmes, a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

Transformation of public services is increasingly led by digitally enabled business change. It is essential that public bodies deliver high quality digital services in a time when our way of life is increasingly digital.

Despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, there is a consistent pattern of underperformance. This underperformance is often the result of decision makers fixing on technology solutions before fundamental aspects of projects and programmes are sufficiently thought through.

The NAO found that only a small proportion of senior officials in government have first-hand experience of digital business change and as a result many lack sufficient understanding of the technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible. Many of the problems that occur in large digital operational change programmes stem from senior decision-makers’ inability to understand the issues and make the decisions required to implement digital change in an effective way.

Pressures on public finances mean there is an urgent need for those designing and delivering digital business change programmes to learn from past mistakes. Our work shows that there are six vital areas decision-makers need to get right if they are to stand the best chance of delivering these projects successfully:

  • understanding aim, ambition and risk;
  • engaging commercial partners;
  • approach to legacy systems1 and data;
  • using the right mix of capability;
  • choice of delivery method;
  • and effective funding mechanisms.

The NAO recommends that the Central Digital and Data Office, along with the Government Digital Service and the Cabinet Office, reviews and applies lessons learned from past failures and successes to improve government’s delivery of digital programmes. They should revise existing training programmes to better equip decision-makers who are responsible for digital transformation programmes. Individual departments and public bodies should ensure that senior digital, data and technology colleagues have greater influence on digital change programmes.

​Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO said: “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, who lack knowledge in this area.

“There has been a consistent pattern of underperformance in delivering digital business change, often resulting from decisions on technology being taken too early, 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.”

Full report:  The challenges in implementing digital change

Notes for Editors

  1. Legacy systems are systems and applications that have been operationally embedded within a business function but superseded by newer and more effective technologies or changed business and new data needs. The commonly used government definition of legacy is any hardware, software or business process which meets one or more of the following criteria: being considered an end-of-life product; being no longer supported by the supplier; being impossible to update; being considered to be above what is considered an acceptable risk threshold; and being no longer cost effective.

About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent.

In 2020, the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £926 million.


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