It’s revealing to look at the timeline of digital transformation initiatives over the last 25 years. Government’s ambition for ‘world class’ services using joined-up systems and data goes back to the mid 1990s, from where we can trace a steady stream of policies and initiatives right through to last autumn’s National Data Strategy. Most of these cover similar ground, which shows how hard genuine transformation is.
Repeated cycles of vision for radical digital change have been accompanied by perhaps an overly simplistic view of the ease of implementation. Government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of doing business and services need to fit into a government landscape still dominated by legacy systems and data. As a result, well-intentioned initiatives have petered out, falling short of achieving their intended outcomes.
It’s important not to see this report as just another commentary on project and programme management failures. In business transformation initiatives with significant digital elements, the intangible nature and use of novel technology introduces many more ‘unknown unknowns’. Contrast this with infrastructure projects, where people can visualise the end product within the laws of physics. This allows a clearer sense from the outset of what is realistically feasible.
Digital leaders bring experience and understand the challenges well. But they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from other senior decision-makers. This is borne out by a recent government review into Organising for digital delivery which identified a significant challenge of low technical fluency across the civil service leadership generally. This contrasts with the commercial world where technology is increasingly seen as a critical delivery lever and senior leaders are expected to have a clear understanding of how to deploy it effectively.
Six reasons why
We wanted to shine a light on the systemic issues that need to be tackled before a programme even gets underway, using our past reports as illustrations. When implementing digital business change programmes here are six things to get right at the outset.
- Understand your aims, ambition and risk by:
- Avoiding unrealistic ambition with unknown levels of risks
- Ensuring the business problem is fully understood before implementing a solution
- Planning realistic timescales for delivery, which are appropriate to the scope and risk of the programme.
- Engage with commercial partners through:
- Spending enough time and money exploring requirements with commercial partners at an early stage
- Adopting a more flexible contracting process that recognises scope and requirements may change
- Working towards a partnership model based on collaboration with commercial suppliers.
- Develop a better approach to legacy systems and data through:
- Better planning for replacing legacy systems and ensure these plans are appropriately funded
- Recognising the move to the cloud will not solve all the challenges of legacy
- Addressing data issues in a planned and incremental way, to reduce the need for costly manual exercises.
- Use the right mix of capacity, make sure you:
- Are clear about what skills government wants to develop and retain, and what skills are more efficient to contract out
- Better align political announcements, policy design and programme teams’ ability to deliver through closer working between policy, operational and technical colleagues.
- Consider the choice of delivery method through:
- Recognising that agile methods are not appropriate for all programmes and teams
- When using agile methods ensure strong governance, effective coordination of activities and robust progress reporting are in place.
- Develop effective funding mechanisms by:
- Ensuring that requirements for both capital and resource funding are understood and can be provided for.
- Seeing technology as part of a service that involves people, processes and systems in order to better consider the economic case for investment.
We recognise that addressing the challenges around digital business change programmes is difficult but using these six lessons will support practical improvements. If you want to find out more, our report The challenges in implementing digital change looks into why large scale government programmes repeatedly run into difficulties.