Government is a ‘tough environment for digital projects’, admit top officials

“Brownfield site” of legacy tech poses a particular challenge, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm tells MPs
CDDO head Joanna Davinson said civil servants must recognise "uncertainty" in digital projects. Screengrab: Parliament TV

Government is a “very tough environment for digital projects”, but cross-government standards and more iterative approaches should help to improve delivery, civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm has said.

Scale, complexity and outdated technology all make it difficult to effect digital change in government, Chisholm told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee during a hearing on the subject today.

The hearing came after a National Audit Office report said this summer that public digital programmes had delivered “a consistent pattern of underperformance” over a period of 25 years.

“Government is a very tough environment for digital projects, partly because of what we call the ‘brownfield site’: there’s a lot of legacy, there’s a lot of previous systems, old data, which stands in the way sometimes of progress,” Chisholm, who is also Cabinet Office permanent secretary, said.

“It’s also one, of course, in which you have live services, you’re not building something new, you’re often building on top of existing operations with live customers who depend on those services.”

He also called the scale and complexity of government’s digital projects “beyond comparison” with that of those in the private sector, adding that the uniqueness of government’s digital needs mean it is often impossible to buy services off the shelf.

He programmes had been “excessively outsourced” in the past and that the client function within departments had been “thinly resourced”, leading to a reliance on the private sector. Government is trying to build up its internal capability to address this, he said.

But he said there has nevertheless been significant progress in improving the delivery of digital projects in recent years.

Asked how central coordination of digital services and projects compare to the Treasury’s oversight of government spending, Chisholm acknowledged “differences in maturity” between the two. However, he said the specified functional standard that has been introduced, which requires projects to pass particular criteria before moving forward, is similar to the Treasury’s Green Book and Managing Public Money tests.

And he said the introduction of the Central Digital and Data Office, which took on a range of standards and controls functions when it was set up less than a year ago, was also a step in this direction.

Optimism and iteration

Appearing alongside Chisholm, Joanna Davinson, head of the CDDO, acknowledged officials' tendency to be over-optimistic about what projects could deliver – a problem that has led to projects of many kinds running over budgets and deadlines across government.

“In any IT or digital system, there is a degree of uncertainty,” she said. “I always get suspicious of people who come to me and say ‘Here’s a plan that says in three years time in June, this system will switch off or this thing will switch on’, because you can’t ever plan with that level of certainty and precision in a digital environment. So we’ve got to get a lot more thoughtful about recognising that uncertainty at the outset and working with it.”

Asked whether this would require a systemic overhaul of how projects are planned, Davinson said the question was instead one of capability and learning from experience. “I’m not sure we actually have to change our funding or programme delivery processes, but we just have to get more skilled in terms of how we apply them and recognise that we need to iterate,” she said.

She said there is a growing appreciation of the need to be flexible when designing and implementing digital projects. 

“You can’t always detail the entire roadmap because you don’t know what you’ll find at the beginning… technology and circumstances change so you’ve got to allow some flexibility to adjust that roadmap,” she said.

Chisholm and Davinson were joined by Tom Read, chief executive of the Government Digital Service, who agreed a more iterative approach is needed, alongside more governance of digital projects. Read said in his previous role as chief digital and information officer at the Ministry of Justice he was impressed by the way the department’s leadership – including the permanent secretary – had “leaned in” to request regular updates on a programme to use unproven technology to enable more video calls between prisoners and their families.

He said different stages of digital projects – such as discovery, private beta and public beta – are “about proving you’re doing the right thing”. If the service does not work well at those stages, “then you stop or pivot – and that is the fundamental principle that we really need to hold onto when we’re doing any digital transformation programme in government”.

Chisholm suggested wider government procurement reforms could also help to address issues caused when departments commit to overly rigid plans or decide on which technology to use too early in the process.

He said in the past, procurement for digital services has tended to be over-specific about what must be delivered, and lowest-cost providers have been most likely to win contracts. “The problem with that is that by the time it actually was delivered, already it’s out of date to your requirements and you’re trying to play catch up,” he explained.

Chisholm said the solution is to have shorter cycles that take a “partnering-type approach” with suppliers, focusing on requirements as projects develop, rather than a conventional procurement approach where requirements are set in stone early on.

“Also, it’s incredibly important to break up those massive programmes which we know are very difficult to deliver into smaller, more modular elements, much more open to SMEs… and also with much less risk involved in delivering and you get something more useful much more quickly,” he added.

With these efforts to improve project delivery ongoing, government is also working to ensure civil servants at the top levels are equipped with digital skills and engaged with the needs of digital projects.

Chisholm said digital transformation is a core theme of a “perm secs of tomorrow” programme he has sponsored, which is aimed at promising director generals, because it is considered “essentially important” for future leaders.

He also said the level at which digital leaders are employed within departments has risen, noting that where they may have been employed as directors in the past and treated “like the IT department”, chief digital and information officers are now frequently director generals and members of departments’ executive teams.

He added that every audit, risk and assurance committee has digital expertise to ensure it is not treated as an “afterthought”.

Davinson added that there is evidence of a “real appetite” among top civil servants to gain more digital skills, saying there had been an “extraordinary takeup” of data masterclasses, with perm secs signing up immediately.

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