Gov needs to manage digital transformation risk: NAO

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, the report states.

The government watchdog said that in a time when citizens’ lives are increasingly digital, it is essential that the government delivers high quality digital services.

The NAO found that 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 organisation said in a statement.

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, the report said.

It added that pressures on public finances mean there is an urgent need for those designing and delivering digital business change programmes to learn from past mistakes.

The NAO identified six areas decision-makers need to get right if they are to stand the best chance of delivering digital projects successfully:

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

In its conclusions, the report 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.

Individual departments and public bodies should also ensure that senior digital, data and technology colleagues have greater influence on digital change programmes, the report found.

Commenting on the report’s findings, 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.”

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