“Dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous”

“Dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous”

That’s how the Public Accounts Committee describes government technology in the press release that accompanies their latest report, “Challenges in implementing digital change“, published today.

They found some encouraging signs that parts of government understand that digital isn’t about polishing and automating existing services, but that overall:

“Departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.”

PAC rightly flag the poor quality of some of the “digital” training on offer:

“Piecemeal training on narrow technical aspects, such as coding masterclasses or teach-ins, will not solve the problem. Instead, high-quality, business school-style education can build confidence in digital business models and how to use such models to transform government.”

And call for a more fundamental rethink:

“… the centre of government needs to do more to ensure all senior decision-makers have confidence in digital business models, their enabling technologies, and data, and how to apply them to transform government.”

Interestingly, they also question why government has developed bespoke, in-house systems that reproduce what’s already available commercially. This behaviour — of building “special”, bespoke things for government rather than buying or consuming existing services or products — is more reminiscent of the old Systems Integrator (SI) days than it is of a digital organisation:

“We recognise the delivery of initiatives such as GOV.UK Notify and Pay, but we note these are relatively straightforward commodity services that are widely available commercially. We are not convinced these demonstrate government’s ability to secure the deeper levels of transformation needed to achieve a more fundamental redesign of business services for the digital age. Cultivating better systems analysis, data analysis and design skills would help government gain a greater understanding of where to focus its efforts.”

This failure to map the landscape and better understand where best to focus may in part explain why so many programmes are heavily bespoked, late, over budget and descoped — or fail completely — just like they did in the heyday of the SIs.

Some of what PAC highlight has been said before, several times, and apparently ignored. Take this recommendation, for example:

At the start of 2022 the CDDO should work with departments to map legacy systems across government to document what is there, why it exists and how critical it is. By the end of 2022 the CDDO should use this to produce a pipeline of legacy systems they have prioritised with milestones for action. This pipeline should be shared with the Committee.

Now compare it with this recommendation from the Science and Technology Report on Digital Government (PDF) in July 2019:

GDS should conduct an audit of all legacy systems across Government, including where they are based, what actions to take, the expected cost of such action and the resulting timescales. GDS’s framework of retain (do nothing), retire (drop), re-host (lift and shift), repurchase (shop and drop), re-platform (life and shape) should be used to determine what actions to take with each legacy system. The audit should assess which approach is most realistic but ‘retain’ should not be used widely as the proposed action in the long-term as there is clear evidence that the legacy system issue is going to increase over time and there are challenges with regard to the skills for supporting such systems. GDS should seek to publish the findings of this audit. This audit should be completed no later than December 2020.

But then of course the National Audit Office (NAO) has long flagged the problem of legacy, including in this 2013 report. The lack of ownership and action is worrying, particularly as legacy systems come with a high political and human cost.

If “digital transformation” is ever to mean anything of significance, rather than being an over-used and under-delivered buzz phrase, we need to break out of the groove in which digital government has been stuck for the best part of three decades. For that to happen, politicians and senior officials need to understand what “digital” really means. A good place to start would be for them to read and take meaningful action on the recommendations of this and other Parliamentary and NAO reports.

It’s also important that PAC follow-up on their findings and recommendations. This is particularly true since objective measures of progress, such as the earlier Performance Platform, have been scrapped. As the Chair of the PAC, Dame Meg Hillier MP, recognises in the accompanying press release, one of the underlying problems remains that:

“The merry-go-round of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through major, essential digital change programmes.” 

Which reflects what former Minister David Freud flagged as a major issue. He described how the lack of ownership and continuity condemned major transformation initiatives, such as the attempt to modernise taxation and welfare, to costly overruns, delays and ultimately failure.

Perhaps the biggest issue of all with “digital” programmes however is that:

“We’ve been looking at this as a technology issue. It is much more than that, [it’s] a major cultural change in the relationship between the state and the people it needs to support.”

David Freud, Former Minister for Welfare Reform

Transparency declarations:

  • Together with Mark Thompson and Will Venters, I submitted this evidence to the Public Accounts Committee inquiry into ‘Challenges in implementing digital change’, some of which is reflected in their report
  • I was the Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for their inquiry into Digital Government
  • I was Technical Adviser to the National Audit Office for their report into Digital transformation in government

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