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Government departments need to better understand digital transformation or efforts will ‘peter out’

National Audit Office report says that the people making digital transformation decisions in government don't properly understand the challenges

The people that run government departments need a better understanding of digital transformation if billions of pounds of efficiency savings are to be made, according to the latest National Audit Office (NAO) report.

In Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency, the NAO warned this could continue unless the government addresses a lack of understanding among decision-makers: “For government to realise billions of pounds in efficiency savings, those running departments need to improve their understanding of digital transformation.”

An earlier NAO report in July 2021 concluded that there had been a quarter of a century of underperformance in digital transformation strategies by successive governments.

The latest report said that the government has previously focused on “simpler online interactions” and just added layers to services, still using old data and systems. This, it added, has “entrenched higher costs and earlier inefficiencies”.

“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. These are complex and deep-rooted issues which take time to address and must be properly addressed by transformation programmes’ governance structures.

“[However], most digital change decisions in government are made by generalist leaders who lack the expertise to fully comprehend and tackle digital challenges,” said the NAO.

The report recommends the government helps non-specialist leaders to understand the issues posed by legacy data and systems, as well as appoint at least one non-executive director with digital, data and technology expertise. It revealed that only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with an industry average of between 8% and 12%.

A recent survey of the UK civil service’s digital skills by the Global Government Forum found that while 78% of respondents would like more digital skills training, some don’t feel confident in their own or in their department’s digital skills.

While nearly all civil servants believe technology is “key to unlocking public sector transformation” and are committed to innovating the way services are delivered, only 60% believe they have an intermediate, advanced or highly specialised skills and knowledge of how technology and data can transform services.

The NAO report welcomed the role of the government’s Central Digital and Data Office’s (CDDO) function in supporting departments in digital journeys. The government announced the CDDO in January 2021, aiming to establish it as a strategic centre for digital, data and technology across government.

However, the NAO that added progress could be restricted if digital change decisions in government continue to be mainly made by generalist leaders who lack the required expertise.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The creation of the CDDO provides fresh impetus for digital transformation across government. Its roadmap is a good step towards addressing systemic issues and encouraging departments to take action.

“However, 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.”

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