Challenges in implementing digital change – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committee of Public Accounts

Related inquiry: Challenges in implementing digital change

Date Published: 10 December 2021

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Digital change, on which government estimates it spends around £20 billion each year, offers a real opportunity for the government to transform its ways of working and how it provides services to citizens. However, we are concerned by the number of complex, large-scale digital programmes we continue to see fail and the impact this has on important government services and taxpayers’ money. For example, failures in NHS England’s efforts to transform primary care services potentially put patients at risk of serious harm. More recently, the Home Office’s programme to replace the police national computer has been delayed by at least five years with an associated cost overrun of more than £400 million.

It is clear to us that government faces significant long-term barriers to successful digital change that will take much time, effort, and money to overcome. For example, there is a lack of digital skills and capability among government’s senior non-specialist leadership, who need to understand the scope of these vast programmes, many of which have embedded ‘legacy’ systems. Such systems are widespread across government but can be unreliable, hard to support, and frustrate efforts to modernise services. This situation is not helped by the scarcity of specialist digital, data and technology skills across both the public and private sectors.

We have heard about progress made over the last decade and what government feels are some important recent success stories, such as the COVID-19 furlough schemes. However, most of these are not large-scale transformational programmes and we remain sceptical of the ability to succeed in this area given the examples we have seen of recent programme failures. Therefore, we also welcome the renewed efforts from the centre of government towards tackling the long-term barriers that prevent real modernisation. There is much to do at both the centre and within departments if effective digital change is to become business as usual for government. In addition, Ministers generally spend a relatively short time in any one post, while Permanent Secretaries typically only serve five-year terms. Neither is likely to remain in post for the entire duration of a major digital change programme. Digital change planning therefore needs to be a core activity for Whitehall to deliver as “business as usual”, as some programmes could take up to 20 years to deliver fully. The citizen and the taxpayer deserve a better service and we will continue to challenge departments in front of us about how they are delivering on these ambitions.