Many digital transformation strategies cover similar ground. It’s the implementation that's the hard part

As the NAO publishes its new guide to digital transformation in government, its director, digital insights shares some of the questions it poses for senior leaders
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By Yvonne Gallagher

28 Feb 2024


Digital transformation is one of the hardest but most-needed changes facing government today. As we’ve said before, 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 through to the present day.  

Most of these strategies cover similar ground, which shows it’s the actual implementation that is the hard part. Government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of delivering services must fit into a government landscape dominated by legacy systems and data. Otherwise, well-intentioned initiatives will continue to peter out or fall short of their intended outcomes.  

In our digital work, we are not just commenting on generic project issues. In business transformation, the intangible nature of digital change and use of new technology can lead non-specialists to believe that digital change is simpler and more straightforward than it is. Contrast this with infrastructure projects, where the physical environment and constraints can be more readily visualised. 

"Government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of delivering services must fit into a government landscape dominated by legacy systems and data"


While there are some excellent and very experienced senior digital leaders in government, there is limited digital capability across the wider senior civil service. Senior digital leaders in departments struggle to communicate their messages effectively because their wider leadership teams lack sufficient experience and understanding of digital issues. Government’s review Organising for digital delivery identified a significant challenge of low technical fluency across the civil service leadership generally. This contrasts with the commercial world where technology is seen as a critical delivery lever and senior leaders are expected to have a clear understanding of how to deploy it effectively. 

A tool to help you 

The National Audit Office's new guide, Digital transformation in government, primarily targets audit and risk committees but is also of use to senior leaders. It poses a number of questions that should be considered when embarking on major digital change such as:  

1. Do you understand the constraints of the existing environment? 

For example: 

  • has the scope and impact of the digital transformation been reviewed, including the legacy systems and data on which it is based? 
  • has the impact of legacy systems and data been factored in and is their remediation funded? 

2. Have you underestimated the scope of early work required? 

For example: 

  • do senior leaders understand the scale and depth of what is proposed? 
  • have existing baseline costs have been presented fully and maintenance costs included, to help determine where priorities should be in terms of efficiency gains? 
  • are key business decisions taken ahead of technology design and development, and have business and technology requirements been fully considered before signing binding commercial contracts? 

3. Do you have the right skills and leadership? 

For example:  

  • do senior leaders have the required level of expertise and experience for the initiative they intend to lead? 
  • has the organisation set out clearly the minimum capability required for digital change programmes in terms of the time made available, levels of training, resource numbers and the quality of people assigned? 

We’re not saying that there is a magic formula that can guarantee success, but we hope our guide helps audit committees and senior leaders who are tasked with overseeing large-scale digital change to understand in more detail the core issues to be addressed and pitfalls to avoid. 

Further resources from the NAO 

In our work, we want to shine a light on the systemic issues to be tackled before a programme even gets underway, using our past reports as illustrations. In The challenges in implementing digital change in 2021 we looked at why government’s digital programmes repeatedly run into difficulties. We identified the critical areas it’s important to get right at the outset of digital programmes.  

Our 2023 report Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency then looked at the progress being made with the latest government strategy: the 2022 to 2025 roadmap for digital and data. The difference with the roadmap is that for the first time, a cross-government collaborative approach to delivering systemic change has been taken to tackle underlying issues which are major constraints to transformation.  This will take some time to achieve and sustained commitments from departments is key.  

Yvonne Gallagher is director, digital insights at the National Audit Office

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