Background to the report

Our way of life is now increasingly digital, and technology is almost always a feature of large-scale government business change programmes. Current and future public services are dominated by digital change. This is clear in much of government’s thinking about how to build back public services following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as in longer-term policies and strategies. In addition, the public increasingly expects the government to make effective use of technology, so public bodies have little choice but to deliver high-quality digital services.

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When large digital business change programmes run into difficulty, the technology solution is often cast as the primary reason for failure. There is rarely a single, isolated reason which causes critical programmes to fail. Many of these programmes face intrinsic business challenges as well as technical challenges. Pressures on public finances mean there is an urgent imperative for those designing and delivering digital business change programmes to learn from the mistakes and experiences of their predecessors. If they do not do so, these programmes will continue to fail.

Scope of the report

This report sets out the lessons for the centre of government and departments to learn from the experience of implementing digital change. It sets out these lessons in six categories, which are essential to get right at the outset:

  • understanding aims, ambition and risk;
  • engaging commercial partners;
  • legacy systems and data;
  • capability;
  • delivery methods; and
  • funding mechanisms.

In pulling together these lessons, the NAO has reviewed previously published reports and interviewed senior digital leaders across government and the private sector. This report assesses good practice, following consultation with experts from industry, academia and think tanks to highlight the nature of the challenges and understand why government has found it hard to apply the lessons of experience.

Report conclusions

Initiating digital change involves taking a difficult set of decisions about risk and opportunity, but these decisions often do not reflect the reality of the legacy environment and do not fit comfortably into government’s standard mechanisms for approval, procurement, funding and assurance. This report found that digital leaders understand these issues well and bring much needed expertise to the public sector, but they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from senior decision-makers who lack sufficient digital expertise.

Despite 25 years of government strategies and countless attempts to deliver digital business change successfully, the findings of this report show a consistent pattern of underperformance. This underperformance can often be the result of programmes not being sufficiently thought through before key decisions on technology solutions are made. This means that there is a gap between what government intends to achieve and what it delivers to citizens and service users, which wastes taxpayers’ money and delays improvements in public services. If government is to improve its track record in delivering digital business change, it must learn the hard-won lessons of experience and equip its leaders to act effectively.

“Whilst digital leaders bring much needed expertise to the public sector, they often struggle to get the understanding and support they need from senior decision-makers, who lack knowledge in this area.

“There has been a consistent pattern of underperformance in delivering digital business change, often resulting from decisions on technology being taken too early, before the business problem is properly understood.

“Government must learn from past experience and better equip senior leaders if it is to improve its track record of delivering digital change.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO