People running departments need a better understanding of digital transformation if billions of pounds of efficiency savings are to be realized, according to the latest National Audit Office (NAO) report.
In Digital Transformation in Government: Overcoming Barriers to Efficiency, the NAO warned that this could continue unless the government addresses policy makers’ lack of understanding: “For government to realize billions of pounds in efficiency savings, responsible departments need to improve their understanding of the transformation digital”.
A previous NAO report from July 2021 concluded that there had been a quarter century of underperformance in successive governments’ digital transformation strategies.
The latest report says the government previously focused on “simpler online interactions” and simply added layers to services, still using legacy data and systems. This, he added, has “entrenched higher costs and past inefficiencies.”
“Digital change involves levels of complexity, uncertainty and risk, which are often unique to each specific program due to legacy systems, legacy operations and integration challenges. These are complex and deep-rooted issues that take time to resolve and need to be properly addressed by the governance structures of the transformation programs.
“[However]most digital change decisions in government are made by generalist leaders who lack the expertise to fully understand and address digital challenges,” the NAO said.
The report recommends that the government help non-specialist leaders understand the issues posed by data and legacy systems, as well as appoint at least one non-executive director with expertise in digital, data and technology. He revealed that only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared to an industry average of between 8% and 12%.
A recent UK civil service digital skills survey speak World Government Forum found that while 78% of respondents would like more digital skills training, some are not confident in their own or their department’s digital skills.
While nearly all public servants think technology is “the key to unlocking public sector transformation” and are committed to innovating the way services are delivered, only 60% think they have the skills and knowledge intermediate, advanced or highly specialized on how technology and data can transform service delivery.
The NAO report praised the role of the government’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) function in supporting departments on digital journeys. The government announced the CDDO in January 2021, aiming to make it a strategic center for digital, data and technology through government.
However, the NAO that has added progress could be limited if digital change decisions in government continue to be made primarily by generalist leaders who lack the required expertise.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The creation of the CDDO gives new impetus to digital transformation across government. Its roadmap is a good step to address systemic issues and encourage departments to take action.
“However, to maintain momentum, the government needs stronger digital expertise and sustained support from senior departmental leaders. Otherwise, these latter efforts will fizzle out and the government will miss the cost savings and efficiencies that digital transformation has long promised.