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NAO: government must upskill to procure digital more effectively

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Senior government officials must be upskilled to ensure that the government procures and manages digital technology and change more effectively, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

In The challenges in implementing digital change, the NAO calls on the government and ministries to learn from its high-profile digital procurement failures. The report’s authors found a range of problems common to those failures, including “shifting business requirements, over-optimism, supplier performance, and lack of capability at the senior and operational level”.

“Only a small proportion of permanent secretaries and other senior officials have first-hand experience of digital business change and as a result many lack sufficient understanding of the business, technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible,” the report states. “This means that many of the problems stem from the inability of senior decision-makers to engage effectively with the difficult decisions required to implement technology-enabled business change.”

The report calls for the government’s leads on digital – the new Central Digital and Data Office, along with the Government Digital Service and the Cabinet Office – to revise existing training programmes to better equip and train all decision‑makers with responsibility for digital transformation programmes. This should include education on legacy systems, the importance of data and the risks of ‘build before buy’ and of opting for unproven technology.

The digital leads should also work with HM Treasury to review business case funding and approval processes for digital programmes, including establishing greater clarity of risks and ‘unknown unknowns’ and ensuring professional independent technical assurance mechanisms are in place.

The report calls on government departments and public bodies to:

  • carry out proper evaluation and assurance in the early stages of a digital programme to understand its complexity and scope, assess how realistic the chance of success is and reflect this in the programme approach;
  •  ensure senior digital, data and technology colleagues have wider influence on all change programmes with digital components, by providing strategic direction and oversight at key decision points in the process; and
  • maximise the chances of effective digital delivery by ensuring that business leaders have sufficient skills, commitment and time to engage in all aspects of governance and decision-making.

The report states: “We do not underestimate the challenge involved in digital change, particularly given government’s vast legacy IT estate and the need for government to deliver services where there is no counterpart model in the private sector from which government can draw.

“But there is widespread support from stakeholders for the centre of government to learn from the lessons we have identified in this report and make the required changes. The new Central Digital and Data Office, along with the Government Digital Service and the Cabinet Office, should work to provide clear leadership for this agenda.”

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