Failings in the way the Cabinet Office established its current cyber security programme mean that the government does not know whether it will meet the programme’s goals and raises questions about its plans to tackle cyber-attacks after 2021, according to today’s report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
The UK has one of the world’s leading digital economies1, making it more vulnerable to cyber-attacks from hostile countries, criminal gangs and individuals, which continue to increase and evolve as it becomes easier and cheaper to launch attacks. The National Cyber Security Strategy 2016 (the Strategy) outlines how the government aims to make the UK more secure online. The £1.9 billion Strategy includes £1.3 billion of funding for the National Cyber Security Programme 2016-21 (the Programme) and this report assesses progress just beyond the mid-point of the five-year Programme.
The Programme provides a focal point for cyber activity across government and has already led to some notable innovation, such as the establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). The Programme has also reduced the UK’s vulnerability to specific attacks. For example, the NCSC developed a tool that led to 54.5 million fake emails being blocked in 2017-18 and the UK’s share of global phishing attacks falling from 5.3% to 2.2% in two years.
However, despite agreeing an overall approach to cyber security as part of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and Spending Review, the Cabinet Office did not produce a business case for the Programme before it was launched. This meant that when HM Treasury set its funding in 2015 it had no way to assess how much money it would need. The work of the Programme was delayed over its first two years as a third of planned funding was reallocated to counter-terrorist and other national security activities. Although this reallocation contributed to enhancing wider national security, it delayed specific projects such as elements of work to understand the cyber threat.
It is unclear whether the Cabinet Office will achieve the Strategy’s wider strategic outcomes by 2021. This is partly due to the difficulty of dealing with a complex and evolving cyber threat but also because it has not assessed whether the £1.9 billion of funding was ever sufficient. It has acknowledged that it may take longer than 2021 to address all the cyber security challenges set out in the Strategy but does not yet know when these might be achieved.
The Cabinet Office has introduced a more robust framework to assess both the Programme and Strategy’s performance and has asked departments to spend more money on measuring their progress in meeting objectives. However, this was only introduced in 2018 and it will take time for any benefits to materialise. It will also be difficult for the Cabinet Office to identify what needs to be done to achieve the aims of the Strategy as it only has ‘high’ confidence in the quality of the evidence used to assess progress against one of its 12 strategic outcomes. Funding for the Programme’s final three years up to 2021 is less than that recommended by those departments responsible for delivering each of the Strategy’s strategic outcomes.
The Cabinet Office has started preparations for its future approach to cyber security, but risks repeating previous mistakes. It seems unlikely that the Cabinet Office will have decided on its overall approach to cyber security before the 2019 Spending Review, which is expected to determine government funding for the next few years. This increases the risk of the Cabinet Office making the same mistake that it did in 2015, when funding was agreed before it published its Strategy outlining the government’s approach to cyber security.
Going forward, the NAO recommends that Cabinet Office establishes which areas of the Programme are having the greatest impact and are most important to address, and focuses its resources there until 2021. Building on existing work, it should consult widely and develop a strategy for UK cyber security after 2021 which clearly sets out which work should be centrally-funded, which are private sector responsibilities and which are core departmental activities. It should also consider more flexible approaches to cyber security that involve a mixture of shorter programmes, so that it can be more responsive to changing risks.