UK Audit Office challenges Westminster to boost digital transformation understanding
A new report by the National Audit Office has signalled to the UK government that those running departments need to improve their understanding of digital transformation to save billions of pounds in efficiency.
Digital change involves levels of complexity, uncertainty and risk which are often unique to each specific programme due to legacy systems, existing operations and the difficulties of integration.
The NAO said that these are “complex and deep-rooted” issues which take time to address, requiring transformation programmes’ governance structures.
‘Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency’ welcomes the stronger central function the Central Digital and Data Office’s (CDDO) provides in leading digital transformation.
It also commends the CDDO’s fresh approach to helping government departments address longstanding challenges to digital transformation through its 2022 to 2025 roadmap for digital and data. However it is a bit of a double-edged sword.
According to the report, Westminster already has a specialist skills deficit. Only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with an industry average of between 8% and 12%. There is also “major” digital skills shortage in the UK.
The study warns that most digital change decisions in government are made by generalist leaders who lack the expertise to fully comprehend and tackle digital challenges – and this isn’t the first time the NAO has identified flaws within government systems.
The UK’s independent public spending watchdog previously reported on the barriers to successful digital transformation and its effect on departments’ operations and efficiency.
In July 2021, the NAO’s report on ‘The challenges in implementing digital change’ identified six key areas of concern, concluding that successive government strategies demonstrated “a consistent pattern of underperformance” over a quarter of a century.
Earlier digital transformation attempts across government often prioritised simpler online interactions and merely layered new changes on top of existing services using old data and systems, the NAO said. “This approach entrenched higher costs and earlier inefficiencies.”
The watchdog now urges individual departments within the government to appoint at least one non-executive director with digital, data and technology expertise and ensure that membership of their most senior decision-making board includes at least one senior digital leader.
“To maintain momentum, government needs stronger digital expertise and sustained support from senior departmental leaders. Otherwise, these latest efforts will peter out and government will not achieve the savings and efficiencies that digital transformation has long promised,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.
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