NAO report finds ‘consistent underperformance’ of government digital programmes over 25 years

Auditors identify pattern of decisions being rushed and ill-informed, while digital leaders lack support
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By Sam Trendall

26 Jul 2021

Government digital programmes have delivered “a consistent pattern of underperformance” over a period of 25 years, a report from the National Audit Office has found.

These failures are often caused by a lack of understanding on the part of non-technical senior decision makers, who consequently provide insufficient support to digital leaders, the report found. This means that decisions are often made too quickly and without the necessary understanding of key business issues.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

Auditors acknowledged that “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,” they added. “We 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.”

The report picked out six main areas where government needs to learn lessons from past problems to ensure success in the future: understanding aim, ambition and risk; engaging commercial partners; approach to legacy systems and data; using the right mix of capability; choice of delivery method; and effective funding mechanisms.

These lessons include the need to set realistic plans for the scope and timescales of projects, and the importance of spending “enough time and money exploring requirements with commercial partners at an early stage”.

Decision makers also need to “recognise the move to the cloud will not solve all the challenges of legacy” and make sure plans for removing legacy technology have sufficient funding.

Greater clarity is also need on what skills and expertise should be developed or hired in, and what would be better outsourced. Policy, operations, and digital professionals also need to work more closely together.

The latter group should also “recognise that agile methods are not appropriate for all programmes and teams”, the report said.

Government also needs to “see technology as part of a service that involves people, processes and systems in order to better consider the economic case for investment”.


The report made nine recommendations for the implementation of tech programmes in the future. 

The first is to improve the training offered to decision-makers on digital transformation initiatives.

“This should include education on legacy systems, the importance of data and the risks of ‘build before buy’ and of opting for unproven technology,” the NAO said.

The Treasury should also lead a review of the approval processes for business cases and funding, with a particularly focus on the need to “remove the incentives to state with full confidence those things which are still unknown”.

Lessons learned from past failures should be better disseminated across government.

Early-stage evaluations of digital programmes, meanwhile, also require improvement, and senior digital and data staff should also be empowered with “wider influence”.

Work should also take place to ensure commercial requirements are fully understood before procurement processes get underway, as well equipping civil service leaders with “sufficient skills, commitment and time to engage in all aspects of governance and decision-making”.

Government is also encouraged to “produce departmental strategies and plans for how to manage the legacy IT estate so that maintenance, support and decommissioning are systematically addressed and required funding is ring-fenced”.

The final recommendation is that, where agile methods are chosen as the best means of delivery, these should be “appropriately applied within the context of significant business programme change”.

“For example, by developing interim and target operating models, and having appropriate business and technical architecture in place,” the report said.

The implementation of these recommendations should be led by the recently established Central Digital and Data Office, alongside the Government Digital Service and the wider Cabinet Office.

“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,” said NAO head Gareth Davies. “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.”

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.

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