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British Government faces long term barriers to digital change and the center needs to do more

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 13, 2021
The influential Public Accounts Committee’s latest report says that government IT is “dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous”

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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has released its latest report assessing the British Government's digital progress, where it says that there are long term barriers to enabling change and that those at the center of government need to do more. 

Not mincing its words, the PAC expresses concern that there are a number of complex, large-scale digital programmes that "we continue to see fail" and that government IT is "dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous". 

Pointing to recent ‘successes', such as the rapid implementation of systems to support COVID-19 schemes, the PAC report states that "most of these are not large-scale transformational programmes" and that it remains "skeptical of the ability to succeed in this area". 

For example, the committee references the failures in NHS England's efforts to transform primary care services, which potentially put patients at risk of serious harm. And more recently, the Home Office's programme to replace the police national computer has been delayed by at least five years, with costs set to overrun by more than £400 million.

But before we dive into the details, it's worth highlighting how the PAC is defining ‘digital transformation', where it says: 

Digital transformation is business change bringing together data, processes, people and technology in new ways to fundamentally change how departments and other organizations serve and provide value to citizens.

Key takeaways

The PAC's report outlines a number of conclusions and recommendations that the government needs to tackle. 

For instance, it says that too many senior government leaders are not equipped with the knowledge and know-how required for making good decisions and to drive digital change. It notes that most senior leaders are generalists, leading to unrealistic scope of programmes. The PAC says that the center of government needs to do more to ensure all senior decision-makers have confidence in digital business models, their enabling technologies, and data, and how to apply them to transform government. 

It is calling on the Cabinet Office to develop a "robust and certifiable" digital business change education process aimed at ministers, departmental boards and civil servants. 

The report also highlights how there is no clear plan to replace or modernize legacy systems and data that the PAC argues are "critical to service provision", but are often "old, unsupportable, vulnerable and a constraint on transformation. It recommends that at the start of 2022, the Central Digital and Data Office should work with departments to map legacy systems across government and then use this to produce a pipeline of legacy systems that they have prioritized with milestones for action. 

Departments have also failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists a no real transformation, argues the PAC. It is urging the Cabinet Office and departments to introduce a structured way of deciding whether the changes that they are making represent incremental improvements to existing systems, or a more transformation redesign of business processes. This should be reflected in the "depth and rigor of the initial scoping and design of programmes", it adds. 

The report also argues that departments have failed to develop a modern professional approach to IT operations, which is needed to support business changes and transformation, where there has been an over-reliance on outsourcing. They are often not structured or funded in a way that allows them to run and update their core systems, and the government accepts that the less successful programmes have been excessively outsourced. 

Finally, the PAC highlights that there is a large gap between the demand for and supply of the digital specialists that government needs, and it is hard to get the right balance of in-house and outsourced skills. Again, the committee notes that the government has been excessively reliant on outsourcing and has failed to retain sufficient in-house capability. 

The committee is urging the Central Digital and Data Office to write to it within six months, setting out how it intends to measure progress against its capability strategy, and annually thereafter report what progress it has made against those metrics. 

Commenting on the findings, Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

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 defense 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.

My take

It would be unfair to say that the government hasn't made a lot of progress on digital change over the past decade. However, that shouldn't be used as an excuse to not recognize that a lot more needs to be done. We've noted previously how momentum seems to have stalled and there has been a lot of change at the center - in terms of governance and accountability - that needs to cement. It's also clear that ongoing barriers persist - namely outsourcing risk and skills capability. It's clear that the PAC wants to see strong guidance from the center, with measures put in place to track progress. With the work done during COVID-19 there is a new recognition across government that change can happen rapidly, which should not be left as a wasted opportunity. 

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