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MoD needs to transform to succeed with digital strategy, says PAC

A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report says the department is ‘not well setup’ to effectively implement its digital change, and calls for both a cultural and organisational shift at the Ministry of Defence (MoD)

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) must transform itself to successfully execute its digital strategy, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

A report by the committee said that the department is “not well setup to implement digital change at pace and scale” and that change is needed.

The MoD published its 10-year digital strategy in June 2021, aiming 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.

However, as a National Audit Office (NAO) report highlighted in October 2022, the department has yet to come up with a delivery plan for the strategy.

The PAC report said that while the department is now working on a delivery plan, the committee is not optimistic that the strategy will succeed.

“Despite the urgency and ambition of its digital strategy, the department does not yet have a delivery plan to measure and track progress. The department’s digital strategy sets out how it wants to share and exploit data effectively for information advantage and develop a skilled and empowered digital function by 2025,” the report said.

“It will be difficult for the department to achieve this given the scale of activity across more than 90 digital projects in its portfolio, its large legacy IT estate, and wide-ranging specialist skills shortages.”

The MoD is due to publish its digital action plan in April 2023, showing how it plans to tackle digital change in more detail.

“If the department is to get to grip with these large and pressing challenges and successfully deliver the objectives of its new strategy by 2025, organisational and cultural change must be required,” the PAC report said, adding that the action plan “must display a genuine sense of urgency to address these serious issues, accompanied by a thorough, realistic and costed programme”.

The MoD has struggled to deliver large-scale digital transformation programmes, with more than 2,000 systems in place, most of which are legacy systems. The department already has several programmes to replace these systems, but is failing to deliver. In its 2021-22 annual report, the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) found that of the five MoD programmes with publicly reported performance, two were rated “red” – deeming them unachievable – and three rated “amber”, meaning there are significant issues with the projects.

“The department says digital technology is rapidly changing the character of warfare, but that it is not yet able to exploit new technologies at pace and scale. This is because it does not fully understand what data it has; old ‘legacy’ systems complicate tasks as routine as ordering a pair of boots; its processes are set up to procure conventional military equipment rather than software; and it lacks all the digital skills it needs,” the PAC report said.

PAC chair, Meg Hillier, said the MoD “as it currently operates is frankly not up to the task it faces”.

“The scale and nature of the challenge of modern warfare is accelerating away from the ministry, while it’s bogged down in critical projects that are years delayed and at risk of being obsolescent on delivery,” she said.

“Two of its major digital transformation projects have been written off as unachievable by the oversight body. There is no world in which that is an acceptable situation at the heart of our national defence.”

One of the key issues, as with most digital change programmes in government, is the skills shortage. While the MoD has is trying several initiatives to close the skills gap, progress has been slow, and the PAC called on the department to report back to the committee in six months how it has changed its approach to recruitment and quantify what effect this has had.

“The department identifies getting the right skills as a key factor in whether it will succeed or fail to achieve its goals by 2025. The skills it needs are wide-ranging and include data analysis, cyber advisory, artificial intelligence, service manager and project delivery skills,” the PAC report said. 

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.
  • 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.

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