Government take note - Audit Scotland’s principles for a successful digital project

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez June 5, 2017
The public sector seems to be littered with horror stories of failed digital projects. Audit Scotland provides a framework for future success.

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It feels as though the public sector has a disproportionate amount of failures when it comes to digital and technology driven projects. That may be because we hear more detail about government projects than we would the private sector, or it may be because public sector organisations fail to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Whilst things have improved in recent years, as user-led design, agile approaches and the use of modern Internet technologies begins to take hold, there are still recorded failings that could have been avoided (take a look at the fairly recent rural payments debacle).

With a General Election this week, with some polls predicting a hung parliament, and investment decisions being made by whoever ends up in power, it’s important to remind ourselves of what forms - and more importantly, what doesn’t form - a good digital project.

Audit Scotland recently published a guide for public sector buyers on just this topic. Whilst the research is a couple of weeks old, it’s recommendations are a timely reminder and serve as a good resource for things to consider when beginning a new project.

Discussing the findings, auditor Lucy Jones said:

We have five main principles- planning, governance, users, leadership and strategic oversight and assurance. We undertook a lot of research to see if other countries had experienced similar issues or not, and we found that they did. From this research and drawing on our previous ICT audits, we collated these five themes or principles.

Within that, there’s a number of subprinciples or areas for consideration that are important for organisations to look at as well.

They’re all equally important. Some organisations will be better at some than others but really they shouldn’t be considered in isolation, it’s a suite of principles and you need to consider them all to help you achieve that successful project.

What I would say is that a key factor underpinning all the principles is having the right skills and experience on the project at the right time.

Comprehensive planning

What’s striking about the framework Audit Scotland has put forward, is that so much of what is discussed would likely be considered common sense - and yet so often what is being suggested gets forgotten.

For example, the report states that it’s fundamental to understand the need and clearly define the benefits that you’re setting out to achieve. Significant user engagement is required and it calls on putting the user need, ahead of the technology decision.

It adds that digital experts need to be involved at the start so that policies and ideas are practical and will work in reality (Universal Credit, anyone?) and so that they can be easily designed and developed into any system.

The report adds:

Public sector organisations are rarely set up in simple ways, and teams must be careful not to underestimate the complexity of the policy or idea. To help appreciate the size of the task ahead, it is essential to invest time to fully understand: the current business processes, the need for change and what is needed to make change happen. It is important that organisations also help suppliers to understand the business processes and environment

And whilst planning is essential, the report highlights how this does not mean a big bang approach. It doesn’t mean defining every single technical requirement up front, but rather requires focusing on the needs and outcomes of the project. Agile approaches should be incorporated.

Equally, make sure that you have the right people involved when developing the idea. Audit Scotland notes that public sector organisations often don’t have the right skills and experience already within the organisation - and this isn’t just limited to technical skills, but also includes people that can manage and negotiate contracts, or capture user experience.

Active governance

Secondly, the report points to an active and well thought through governance framework, which has procedures and controls in place to guide a project and support effective decision making. It should provide appropriate control and oversight at all levels of the project.

Governance should be active, playing a continuing role throughout the project, but not rigid. It should be able to flex with changing needs and adapt to changing risk profiles, states Auit Scotland.

The report accurately states that the failings in the past have not always been the fault of a supplier.

Public sector organisations do not have a good track record of supplier and contract management. Organisations need to have appropriate skills to act as an intelligent client, to challenge the supplier and fully understand the progress and risk level.

It calls for independent assurance, such as gateway reviews, which can provide vital challenge and support for key decision and progress points across the life of the project. Being independent means issues can be raised with leadership and those within the project that have concerns then feel like that they have got a back-up.

Audit Scotland also highlights the need for honest and accurate reporting. It states:

Monitoring project progress and providing the right information to the right level of the governance framework is crucial to recognising problems and reacting quickly. This means identifying key indicators of progress and reporting consistently and honestly to everyone involved in governance.

All levels of governance need to recognise the risks of over-exaggerating problems, or diluting problems, and ensure that mechanisms are in place to ensure accurate reporting to account for any bias. This includes reporting from any suppliers.

Putting users at the centre

This is one of the most critical, in my mind. Organisations need to identify everyone, both internal and external, who will use or be affected by a proposed system or service. These people need to be involved from the start and should be used to fully understand what is required.

And this can’t be a one off task. Audit Scotland highlights the importance of sustaining engagement with users. It adds:

This is not just about involving users in testing the proposed solution. It is about getting them involved in designing the whole process from the start. Involving them from the start, and throughout the process, will help get their buy-in and commitment to the solution, meaning it is more likely to achieve desired outcomes.

Users’ and business needs may change over time. Processes need to be in place to allow changes to be made easily but ensuring appropriate checks and controls exist.

Equally, it is noted that the technology itself will very rarely deliver the change. There needs to be a programme of work with the people who will use or be affected by the system, to get them ready for the change. Audit Scotland argues that time needs to be left for training sessions before the technology is mandated for use and that support needs to be provided one the system or service is live.

Clear leadership

Again, this one is critical. We have seen time and time again in our coverage of public sector digital projects that often the success, or progress made, depends on the person in charge and their ability to encourage, support, drive change and ensure things get done.

Audit Scotland states:

Many reports on failures of ICT projects include commentary on the impact of weak leadership, or a high turnover of senior officers, and a lack of commitment. These issues can have a serious impact on the project. Senior leadership (such as the executive management team, senior responsible owner (SRO) and project sponsor) need to demonstrate drive to keep the project moving forward. As digital is so important to the future delivery of services, all senior leaders across the organisation should show a clear commitment to the project.

The report calls for clear lines of accountability. If these aren’t in place, miscommunication and issues falling through the cracks are common. For example, who makes what decisions? And which issues should be escalated to whom?

Stability is also key. Time and time again, particularly in the public sector, projects falter as those in charge shift positions within the organisation or revert to the private sector.

Upheaval adds time, changes focus, and changes the culture of the project. Succession planning to replace lost skills should be a key element when planning projects. While changes can’t always be prevented or predicted, ensuring adequate planning, knowledge transfer, and sound leadership at all levels can help ease the impact.

Finally, Audit Scotland notes the importance of culture and tone at the top. Many projects continue to underestimate the role culture plays in a successful project, where collaboration and a positive environment will help maximise the contribution from all in the team. But, it should also be recognised that different cultures can exist between different teams within the same organisation - leadership plays a key role in setting the tone.

A central framework of strategic oversight

Interestingly, the final principle in Audit Scotland’s report is one that calls for projects to be set within a central framework of strategic oversight and assurance. It argues that this can add value, by bringing in an additional level of oversight and assurance on riskier projects.

Strategic oversight helps to identify and prioritise the risks and challenges that the project needs to deal with to succeed. It can also provide senior leadership across the organisation with an additional level of confidence at key points that the project is ready to proceed to the next stage.

Having a central framework of strategic oversight and assurance can create the conditions in which people share lessons and experiences both across an organisation and with other public sector bodies. Learning from previous projects should be a key part of the planning for every new project.