Digital

NAO: The challenges of implementing digital change

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 and it is essential that public bodies deliver high quality digital services in a time when our way of life is increasingly digital, the report said.

It also said that despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, there is a consistent pattern of underperformance.

They reported that 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 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, it was reported.


It also found 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’s work shows that there are six vital areas decision-makers need to get right if they are to stand the best chance of delivering these 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.
  • Effective funding mechanisms.

The NAO 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 the government’s delivery of digital programmes.

The report said the government should revise existing training programmes to better equip decision-makers who are responsible for digital transformation programmes.

It also said that individual departments and public bodies should ensure that senior digital, data and technology colleagues have greater influence on digital change programmes.

Commenting, Head of the NAO, Gareth Davies 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.”


PSE will be hosting a Digital Transformation Virtual Festival on 14 October. Join us for the full day event by registering here.

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