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By Kam Bhatoa, Head of Government, BJSS
“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.”
-House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts
Public sector digital transformation projects are by definition large and complex. The success of these projects has significant consequences for government services and the people that use them. However, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts’ December 2021 report, Challenges in implementing digital change, recognised that there are significant long-term barriers to success.
At BJSS, we have extensive experience working on digital transformation projects across the public and private sectors, so we’ve encountered (and overcome) many of the barriers to change at this scale. In this article, I’m going to respond to each of the six challenges identified in the report and offer approaches to addressing them.
“There is no clear plan to replace or modernise legacy systems and data that are critical to service provision but are often old, unsupportable, vulnerable and a constraint on transformation.”
As the report points out, many of the government’s legacy systems date back to the 1970s, and the inherent risks are self-evident. However, one of the greatest challenges is getting a true picture of the legacy estate across government and understanding which systems are in most urgent need of modernisation. As such, the report recommends the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) work with government departments to map legacy systems and produce a pipeline of systems prioritised for remedial action.
The CDDO’s findings will be a real driver for change when they’re delivered by the end of 2022. In effect, they will give government departments permission to take the steps necessary to make tangible, long-term changes to their legacy systems. There will be several routes to this. For some departments, this will be an opportunity for true digital transformation, to bring in new suppliers with fresh ideas and relevant experience to build something truly innovative. For others, it will be an opportunity to enact bold modernisation roadmaps with incumbent suppliers that have worked on legacy systems for years and will have a good understanding of how to effectively change them. In fact, the CDDO’s findings could give departments the permission to enact much-needed “firebreak” programmes of remedial work (for example, a quick, three-month sprint) that solve persistent legacy issues and lay the foundations for more transformative change programmes in the future.
missed opportunities for transformation
“Departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.”
The report identifies the recurring issue of building new systems on top of legacy systems and old data instead of delivering longer-lasting benefits through the redesign and transformation of public services. The recommendation is for the Cabinet Office to introduce a structured way of deciding whether initiatives represent an incremental change to existing systems or a more transformational redesign of processes. Indeed, in this consideration of the rigour of the scoping process, the report highlights successful projects as ones with “narrow focus and fixed deadlines”.
In our experience, a singular focus is instrumental to navigating this dichotomy between incremental change and wholesale transformation. An initiative can deliver incremental improvements to an existing system, or it can be a fundamental redesign of an existing system or process. It cannot be both. Adding new features and functionality to an existing system while trying to build that system’s replacement inevitably results in a stalemate. Projects get stuck in limbo and do not realise the full benefits for taxpayers. Especially when it comes to modernising legacy systems, the focus should be on fully decommissioning the old estate and standing up the new system before starting to deliver additional
Strong And Accountable co-ordination
“Digital programmes often fail to have their own single programme office to support the programme director to align all aspects throughout the lifetime of the programme, including integration of legacy and future systems.”
To address this challenge, the report recommends the Cabinet Office develop guidance on how to approach legacy integration, and mandate professional design, data and infrastructure controls and practices. In our opinion, this will come from setting the programme governance up appropriately in the first instance (and bearing in mind that no two projects so one size won’t fit all). We’d recommend considering governance as part of the Outline Business Case (OBC) so that a Project Management Office (PMO) capability can be established and leveraged to the individual project and its unique aims.
approach to technology suppliers
“Departments have failed to develop a modern professional approach to IT operations needed to support business change and transformation and have created an over-reliance on outsourcing.”
Certain approaches to technology suppliers are more efficient than others, particularly on the scale of transformation that comes with government programmes. For example, going through a separate procurement process for discovery, alpha, data, or strategy, even if they are all part of the same programme, has associated time and cost overheads. One way to reduce these, and therefore arrive faster at solutions that bring about better outcomes, is through delivery partner contracts, in which one supplier with multiple capabilities is procured to deliver a comprehensive programme of end-to-end work. Not only does it reduce the impact of the procurement loop, but it also lets delivery partners build an enduring relationship with a government department and achieve a long-term, holistic understanding of its tech estate. This in turn makes it quicker and easier to adapt to changing priorities while giving the flexibility to procure specialist services from SMEs whenever necessary.
The report also specifically calls out the fact that, for many programmes, the technology was selected too early and incorporated into supplier contracts. Our advice in this area is to focus on services instead of products. It can be so easy to lead with a certain tech stack, especially if there’s a buzz around it, but we need to think of technologies or solutions as tools to achieve a goal rather than the goal itself. It should all come back to the Technology Code of Practice: understand your user needs, design the service to meet those needs, then find the best-suited platforms, products and solutions to build it.
Skills and outsourcing
“There is a large gap between the demand for and supply of the digital specialists that government needs, and it is hard to get the right balance of in-house and outsourced skills.”
It’s no surprise that the government has identified a gap in digital skills as an issue. Attracting and retaining digital specialists, particularly in sought-after disciplines, is a huge challenge for organisations across all industries and sectors. The report recommends that the CDDO set out how it intends to measure progress in building digital capabilities and report against those metrics annually.
It’s our opinion that suppliers should take seriously their responsibility towards helping governmental teams build capability. At BJSS, for example, we meticulously and comprehensively document all our work to facilitate knowledge sharing with clients, ensuring they can build the skills and understanding needed to manage and deliver current and future digital transformation programmes. Government departments should expect suppliers to take an active role in helping them find the right balance between in-house and outsourced skills.
“Too many senior government leaders are not equipped with the knowledge and know-how required for making good decisions and to drive digital business change.”
“Making good decisions” is one of those things that sounds so much easier than it is. And, as the report correctly identifies, it’s a challenge of access to information. Organisations across all industries and sectors often make choices based on out-of-date data, sometimes months or years old, with obvious consequences on the quality of the decisions.
In addition to the report’s recommendation of a robust digital business change certification, we believe that programmes need to address the data challenge at the outset. This involves not just setting out the key metrics that demonstrate a project is delivering value but putting in place the capability to report on those metrics, in real-time, and in ways that are easily, rapidly shareable with key decision-makers. We’d strongly advise automating this data collection and sharing if possible – this reduces the time spent by people manually producing reports and frees them up to work on higher-value, more strategic tasks. If key stakeholders can instantly see up-to-the-minute information on whether a project is performing, they can make better, more informed, more effective decisions.
Overcoming the barriers to digital change will not be easy. However, by considering the ways in which technology can be used to transform processes and redefine the ways in which public services are provided, government departments will be able to deliver positive outcomes for taxpayers.
In fact, in BJSS’ latest white paper, Unleashing the power of combined strategies in cloud, data and intelligent automation, we discuss how integrating cloud, data and intelligent automation can deliver workplace efficiencies for public sector organisations and an enhanced user experience – all while reducing costs.
To learn more about embracing cloud, data and intelligent automation to deliver smarter and more efficient services, follow the link to download the white paper.