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Government officials lack experience to lead digital transformation, says NAO

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The government needs to reskill senior decision makers and give tech leaders more influence if digital business change projects are to succeed
The government needs to better equip senior officials with the right skills to enable them to implement digital programmes if it is to reverse consistent underperformance, according to a National Audit Office (NAO) report.

It also recommended that senior tech staff, within government organisations, be given the opportunity to have more influence of projects, because current decision makers do not listen to, support or understand them.

In its report entitled The challenges in implementing digital change, the NAO said public bodies need to deliver high quality digital services as the country becomes “increasingly digital,” but to do so the reasons for decades of project failures must be addressed.

The NAO report said there has been a “consistent pattern of underperformance” in digital programmed over the last 25 years, which has often been the result of decision makers not thinking them through before deciding on a technology to implement.

It said only a small proportion of senior officials in government have first-hand experience of digital business change and many lack sufficient understanding of the technical and delivery risks for which they are responsible.

“Initiating digital change involves taking a difficult set of decisions about risk and opportunity, but these decisions often do not reflect the reality of the legacy environment and do not fit comfortably into government’s standard mechanisms for approval, procurement, funding and assurance,” said the report.

Senior tech leaders in government should be given a louder voice during programme planning and implementation, said the NAO. “Digital leaders understand these issues well and bring much needed expertise to the public sector, but they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from senior decision-makers who lack sufficient digital expertise.”

The NAO said decision makers must learn from past mistakes and outlined six areas that they must get right.

These are: understanding the aim, ambition and risk; engagements with commercial partners; the approach to legacy systems and data; the right mix of capability; the delivery method; and effective funding mechanisms.

It said the Central Digital and Data Office, along with the Government Digital Service and the Cabinet Office, should review and apply lessons learned from past failures and successes to improve government’s delivery of digital programmes.

It also said existing training programmes for decision-makers who are responsible for digital transformation programmes should be revised and that senior digital, data and technology staff should have greater influence on digital change programmes.

NAO head Gareth Davies, said digital leaders bring much needed expertise to the public sector, but struggle to get the understanding and support they need from senior decision-makers, who lack the necessary knowledge.

“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,” said Davies.

“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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