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MoD must have clear delivery plan for digital strategy, says NAO

While the Digital Strategy for Defence seems to be going well, the National Audit Office is concerned there is no overarching plan to implement it, or a clear way of measuring whether it is on track

In June 2021, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) launched a 10-year strategy that aims to invest an additional £1.6bn in digital, including establishing a “digital foundry”, a federated ecosystem of digital innovators and developers, and a defence-specific artificial intelligence (AI) centre.

The strategy also aims to place a digital backbone at the heart of its approach, which will be the enabler for digital transformation.

Now the National Audit Office (NAO) has called on the MoD to ensure it has an overarching delivery plan for the Digital Strategy for Defence.

In a report on the department’s efforts to implement its new digital strategy, the NAO said the strategy is “consistent with good practice”, and the MoD has done well in improving its core IT services. However, it is struggling with a shortage of digital skills.

“The department does not have enough people with the right digital skills, which is affecting delivery of the strategy,” said the report. “There is a digital skills shortage across UK industry and the public sector, and the department finds it hard to recruit and retain talent.” It added that this is partly due to the MoD not being able to match private sector pay.

“Technologists see the department as bureaucratic and the hiring process, including getting security clearance, takes too long,” said the NAO. “The department also finds it increasingly difficult to recruit digital specialists to work in Defence Digital’s main location in Corsham – it intends to make working flexibly the default to help with this issue. The shortfall of technical skills is affecting the delivery of both individual programmes and the strategy as a whole.”

The report said the department is trying several initiatives to fix the skills gap, but progress has not been fast enough, and it called on the MoD to find a different approach.

This is not just an issue within the MoD, but a wider cross-government issue, it added.

Another issue identified by the NAO is that the MoD does not have an overarching delivery plan for the strategy “and, as a result, cannot easily measure its performance with implementing it”.

The report said: “Although it has individual plans supporting each of the workstreams and programmes within the strategy, it has not brought these together to provide a complete picture of progress across the strategy.

Read more about the MoD and digital

  • The Ministry of Defence aims to invest an additional £1.6bn in digital over the next 10 years, and plans to establish a federated ecosystem of digital innovators and developers to ensure continuous progress.
  • The Ministry of Defence is struggling with its £196bn defence capabilities programme, as 10 of 32 projects, including several technology ones, are in trouble, according to the National Audit Office.
  • Clear spike in data breach incidents at defence partners may reflect better reporting standards, claims MoD.

“In our wider work on implementing digital change across government, we stress the need for an overall plan and design for how a business can transform itself that clearly sets out the associated ambition and risk. Such a plan would also allow the department to prioritise its activity effectively when delivery challenges emerge.”

NAO head Gareth Davis said the MoD strategy aims to transform “capabilities through people, technology and data”, adding: “If implemented successfully, it should support the seamless sharing of data and coordinated decision-making needed for modern warfare.

“However, the MoD faces ongoing challenges with its implementation of major technology programmes and acquiring scarce digital skills. The MoD needs a clear plan for prioritising resources to where they are needed most urgently if it is to deliver its ambitions for digital transformation.”

Despite the challenges, the strategy is on track to exceed efficiency targets in the current spending review period. However, the NAO recommended the department to identify what people, skills and funding will be needed, and set clear performance indicators for the strategy’s progress.

Commenting on the report, Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier said the strategy is welcome and endorsed by senior stakeholders in the department, but the MoD “must urgently address the all-too-familiar delivery risks if it is to realise its ambitions and protect the UK from rapidly changing security threats.”

Hillier added: “The MoD lacks a co-ordinated delivery plan and skilled personnel, including staff with project delivery and digital skills. It is not alone in facing these challenges, but it urgently needs to develop a realistic plan if its armed forces are to be equipped for the modern battlefield.”

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