MoD digital plan 'hampered by skills gaps and ageing tech'

Department needs to hire scores of technical staff and spend billions on IT upgrades to deliver on strategy, NAO finds

The MoD lacks adequate personnel to implement the Digital Strategy for Defence, the report says. Photo: Lauren Mitchell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Katherine Hapgood

28 Oct 2022

Delivery of government’s Digital Strategy for Defence is beset by issues and inadequacies that threaten successful completion, the National Audit Office has found. 

The strategy’s objectives completion date is 2025, which is “ambitious” due to the “scale of the challenge and the persistent barriers to change,” according to the report released this month. 

The Digital Strategy for Defence is the Ministry of Defence’s plan to improve cybersecurity and modernise digitisation. The three goals are: to create a digital "backbone" to allow for data to be shared seamlessly and securely across all military and civilian domains; develop a digital "foundry" for centralised software and data analytics development; and improve and empower its digital function so skilled digital specialists can deliver the transformation and integration of the technology across MoD.

The NAO report examines the MoD's progress on implementing the digital strategy from May 2021, when the strategy was announced, up to June 2022. 

The main issues it identified are the lack of a complete plan or a clear way of measuring progress. 

The department also lacks adequate personnel to complete the task, the report says. Defence Digital currently aims to hire 151 people with high-priority technical skills for the large undertaking. By June 2022, only 42 people have been hired, with the MoD in the process of bringing in 39 more. It is understood that the intention is that new recruits will fill critical roles and ideally be a mix of employees and contractors.

The MoD’s “historically poor reputation for project and programme delivery” is largely due to a substantial amount of legacy technology that needs to be replaced or updated, as it is currently “a barrier to integrating digital activity across defence,” the NAO said. According to Defence Digital’s 2019 estimation, the MoD would need to spend £11.7bn to update or replace ageing legacy technology over the following decade.

The NAO primarily recommends the MoD “immediately creates a clear plan for the digital strategy” that includes wider efforts to transform the department; prioritise all activities needed to achieve set goals; create clear indicators to demonstrate future progress; and develop a consistent set of performance information for both digital and wider departmental function. 

To help address the need for tech expertise, the department is understood to be working on a major "Digital Skills for Defence" initiative to strengthen the digital skills of defence leaders, digital professionals and other employees. To strengthen IT infrastructure, meanwhile, the MoD is investing in a new "digital foundry" so the department can start exploiting data as a strategic asset, as well as enhance cyber resiliency.

“The Digital Defence Strategy provides a strong foundation for the transformation of defence. It is ambitious in how we need to implement digital transformation across a large and complex enterprise like defence,” an MoD spokesperson said.

“We agree with the NAO’s recommendation that delivery can be strengthened by creating a clear, overarching plan to coordinate and monitor delivery. We are putting this plan in place immediately.”

This story originally appeared on CSW's sister title PublicTechnology

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