Skip to content

Search the site

Step up, Sir Humphrey: Why UK govt’s digital failings are a business sponsor problem

CDDO's roadmap risks "petering out" warns NAO.

Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the government’s digital transformation inadequacies is not an irregular occurrence, including inside His Majesty’s Government (HMG) itself–  which has launched 11 digital strategies over the past 25 years, all seeking to address usability, efficiency and legacy systems.

The National Audit Office has also regularly (sometimes acerbically, yet always helpfully), tracked progress on government digital transformation efforts. Its July 2021 report “The challenges in implementing digital change” [pdf] for example spelled out 15 areas across six key pillars that departments need to improve on…

Now in a new report –  described by the Ministry of Defence (MOD)’s CIO Charles Forte as a “clarion call for even greater focus on digital modernisation and to accelerate the exploitation of digital game-changers” – NAO has warned that the first (2022-2025) roadmap of HMG’s Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) -- created in early 2021 to lead HMG’s digital, data and technology function -- already runs the risk of “petering out.”

Government digital transformation: Can you pay my skills...

NAO is clear that this is not a CDDO failing. The office, led by Chief Executive Megan Devlin, “has taken a new approach to digital change to address previous systemic failings across government" it said.

"We welcome CDDO’s efforts to work more collaboratively with departments to identify problem areas that need to be tackled to create, test and refine a set of realistic commitments” the audit office noted on Friday.

“Chief digital and information officers said they also welcome this new approach and believe this central support  is helping to create conditions for change in their departments” it added in the new report, "Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency" [pdf], addressed to the Cabinet Office.

See also: GCHQs’ Director should not be playing guest editor

It is not just CIOs/CDOs who need to make change happen, NAO emphasised.

“The technology community in government is often expected to drive transformation on behalf of business leaders. However, most digital change decisions are made by the business leaders – such as permanent secretaries, chief executives, chief operating officers and directors general” it said.

“ They make decisions on digital matters such as funding and investment, the scope of programmes and how procurement should be undertaken. The success of these decisions is dependent on these leaders having the digital fluency to make the best choices and fully understand the consequences of their decisions for digital transformation” – and this, the report suggests, remains a major sticking point.

Earlier sensible advice from NAO on government digital transformation programmes
Earlier sensible advice from NAO on government digital transformation programmes

That is not helped by an ongoing skills challenge. Over a third of UK government technology recruitment campaigns fail – even GCHQ missed its recruitment target by over 50% for the last year recorded – and recruitment is hardly helped by the sharply lower salaries than are achievable in the private sector.

"The existing skills gap is getting worse and CDDO is concerned that digital teams in departments will not have the skills and  expertise necessary to implement the  Roadmap. Second, service transformation requires the support of senior leaders beyond the digital function and there is a high risk that this support will not be sustained without continued and proactive involvement from permanent secretaries in departments" NAO warns crisply.

And the clock is ticking on how long legacy systems will be able to run amid a “loss of associated specialist skills” it emphasises, highlighting the “Pension Services Computer System (PSCS)” which handles around £104 billion in pension payments and which was set up in 1988, the Police National Computer of 1974 and the Home Office’s Warning Index, built in 1990 and which stores and presents watchlist information for Border Force staff to check people arriving in the UK as examples of ageing systems.

Yes Minister, I will take up my digital training...

COOs, Director Generals, Permanent Secretaries and other big, if sometimes arthritic, beasts of the civil service jungle need to fix up, look sharp, NAO said, politely suggesting that some serious arm-twisting is needed: "There may be insufficient levers for gaining the attention and participation of very senior non-digital leaders and to embed this   further down their organisations. Uptake of training so far is slow..."

(Could it be that the "Sir Humphrey's" of government are not amenable to an intelligent young woman coming in with good ideas for reform of well-established, if ultimately brittle services, and feel that "in view of the somewhat nebulous and inexplicit nature of [CDDOs] remit, and the arguably marginal and peripheral nature of [its]  influence within the central deliberations and decisions within the political process, there could be a case for restructuring their action priorities" as one classic formulation from the programme Yes Minister has it.)

Government’s objective is to move at least 50 of the government’s top 75 services to a ‘great’ [digital] standard. To reach this standard, "services must minimise unnecessary time, effort, and cost for both users and the departments providing them. Initial analysis by CDDO suggests that only 10% of services have reached this standard... there is often no end-to-end ownership of services: different people are responsible for the online front-end and back-office legacy processes. This is a major barrier to redesigning services," NAO emphasised.

Thanking CDDO’s Chief Executive Megan Lee Devlin’s for her leadership, MOD's Charles Forte responded to the report on LinkedIn saying: “We need to work together to engage senior stakeholders in government to understand the imperatives here and to get behind a gear shift.

"This is a team sport and the ‘conglomerate’ view across departments doesn’t help. The chronic issues we face in accessing skills requires both short term ‘emergency’ action and the building of a long term, structural pipeline that can both help HMG and be a link to drive greater national prosperity.”

These issues will be under the spotlight at an exclusive dinner and panel discussion with senior government stakeholders run by The Stack on the evening of April 25 at a private venue in central London. Contact Ed Targett if you would like to be considered for attendance. Numbers are strictly limited to 15 attendees.