PAC scrutinises failure of large government IT modernisation projects

From unskilled senior government officials to over-reliance on outsourcers and contractors, the factors underpinning unsuccessful tech-driven transformation initiatives are investigated in a new report

A report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has raised concerns over failures in relation to the objectives and cost of complex and large IT transformation programmes led by central government departments.

Informed by initiatives that have either failed to modernise or suffered massive delays and cost overruns, the PAC report outlined a number of reasons why projects were unsuccessful, as well as recommendations to change the current scenario.

Examples of failures related to digital change, on which the government estimates it spends around £20bn each year, cited in the report include the Home Office’s blunders around the modernisation of core police IT systems, which has not progressed in the past five years. The challenges around tech-driven transformation initiatives led by NHS England to transform primary care services were also cited.

According to PAC chair Meg Hillier, the government’s “staggering efforts” to modernise IT systems were plagued by short-termism, also seen across other areas of policy delivery, as well as frequent changes in leadership. “The merry-go-round of ministers and permanent secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through essential major digital change programmes,” she said.

“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 defence 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,” Hillier added.

Skills

One point raised by the PAC report was the lack of expertise in operational services, or in technical areas such as digital and data, among many senior government leaders. This has caused issues ranging from setting unrealistic scope for programmes to longer-lasting results in relation to the redesign of public services.

“The merry-go-round of ministers and permanent secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through essential major digital change programmes”
Meg Hillier, Public Accounts Committee

The lack of expertise is acknowledged by central government, and there is a desire that all 5,500 members of the senior civil service acquire digital and data skills, the report noted. This is underway through initiatives such as data masterclasses, but the PAC argued more needs to be done in equipping senior government leaders with digital business models, their enabling technologies and data, as well as ways in which those elements can be applied in government transformation.

“The Cabinet Office should develop a robust and certifiable digital business change education process aimed at ministers, departmental boards and senior civil servants, and should make certification a pre-requisite for taking on key roles,” the report stated as a recommendation, adding that the department should report progress on that front within six months.

There is a significant gap between the demand for and supply of digital specialists the government needs, the report noted, which makes it difficult to strike a balance between in-house and third-party staff. The PAC expressed concerns that the government’s intentions to bring more digital delivery in-house were at odds with its ability to attract the expertise it requires, and meaningful progress needs to be made against these long-standing challenges. Moreover, the report noted government salaries are a lot lower than those in the private sector.

While the PAC did not offer any specific advice in terms of how departments should go about addressing the tech skills shortage in the public sector, it did require the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), which is responsible for the government’s capability building strategy, to write to the PAC within six months with details on how it planned to achieve its goals, and on a yearly basis to report progress against those metrics.

Legacy

The lack of clarity in the modernisation of legacy systems that are crucial to public service provision but are also old, vulnerable and lacking support was one of the points noted in the PAC report. The report cited areas supported by systems that sometimes date back to the 1970s, such as UK border management and state pension payments.

On legacy systems, the report noted that many of these platforms function at a stable level despite their age, but others are high-risk, unreliable and an outright hurdle to digital transformation. Criticisms outlined in the PAC report include the absence of an ongoing process to assess and understand cross-government legacy risk.

Efforts led by the CDDO around information gathering on departmental legacy systems were acknowledged in the report, as well as plans to roll out a risk-based prioritisation model for remedial action starting in 2022.

“This is encouraging and we look forward to seeing the centre and departments take concrete action to begin to address high-risk legacy systems next year,” the report stated, adding that the CDDO should work with departments to map legacy systems and document reasons they still exist and their criticality, then produce a pipeline and action plan to tackle ageing systems by the end of 2022.

Design

The difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation has not been understood by departments, the PAC report noted, with new systems rendered inefficient as they are built on top of old data. Citizen benefits stemming from redesigning systems based on data and emerging tech, as well as new processes, have not been sufficiently considered.

“We recognise the delivery of initiatives such as Gov.uk Notify and Pay, but we note these are relatively straightforward commodity services that are widely available commercially,” the report said, adding that the PAC was not convinced these services demonstrate the government’s ability to secure the deeper levels of transformation needed to achieve a more fundamental redesign of services fit for the digital age.

As a recommendation on that front, the PAC suggested the introduction of a “structured way of deciding whether the changes they are making represent incremental improvements to existing systems, or a more transformational redesign of business processes”. Initial scoping and design of programmes led by the Cabinet Office and other central government departments should take these factors into account, the report noted.

The need for digital programmes to have their own single programme office was also outlined by the PAC, given that departments struggle to manage integration and connections between different platforms, particularly when it comes to legacy, both within and outside programmes. The report argued that such programme offices need digital knowledge “beyond what may be provided by a non-specialist programme board, backed up by a strong function at the departmental level and at centre of government to ensure this happens”.

Outsourcing and contractors

The over-reliance on outsourcing companies to support IT operations was also mentioned in the PAC report, which added that the government accepts there is a correlation between programmes that are heavily outsourced and failure to deliver on the goals.

The report noted that “departmental IT functions are often not structured or funded in a way that allows them to run and update their core systems and support business transformation”. The current approach to Spending Review allocations is not helpful either, the report noted, adding that the need to deliver under major multibillion-pound programmes led to underinvestment in addressing legacy and maintaining systems’ fitness for purpose.

The report argued that slim internal resources in departments that make intensive use of outsourcing led to heavy use of external consultants. However, it noted that while these professionals may have considerable expertise in some areas, they have little or no knowledge of the existing systems. This leads to issues such as the inability to change direction when required, it said.

To address these issues, the report recommended steps the CDDO could take to improve the maturity of departments’ approach to IT operations and change, such as defining what influence digital specialist leaders should have, as well as defining who is accountable and responsible for contracts, and the assurance mechanisms at the beginning and throughout the lifecycle.

On the over-reliance on contractors or external consultants for core design or architectural decisions previously scrutinised by the PAC, the report pointed out the Cabinet Office was taking steps to address the issue. These include the introduction of a central team of experts taking ownership of digital, data and technology standards including technology choices, privacy, security and interoperability.

On ways to address the problems around oversight of digital programmes, the PAC recommended the development of “guidance on how to approach legacy integration, and mandate rigorous and professional design, data and infrastructure controls and practices, with appropriate accountabilities”.

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