A new report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee on 'Challenges in implementing digital change' packs some hard punches. It concludes that there's a chronic lack of digital skills and capability among the government’s senior non-specialist leadership which means there is a lack of understanding of the scope of its vast IT programmes. Many of these have embedded ‘legacy’ systems dating as far back as the 1970s.
The government estimates it spends around £20 billion each year on digital change but this represents poor value for taxpayers. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that it is concerned by the number of complex, large-scale digital programmes which 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.
Apart from a lack of core skills at a senior level the PAC also noted that the way the civil service operates does not assist the problem. 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 government has also been heavily dependent on third-party IT suppliers. Aside from the cost of external suppliers, this outsourcing has undermined any urgency in the need for departments to create their own in-house technical expertise. This is a matter now taken on board by the cabinet office.
Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:
“The short-termism that plagues so much critical policy delivery is nowhere more evident than in Government’s staggering efforts to bring crucial, national IT systems into the current century and up to functional speed. The merry-go-round of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries means no one remains long enough to see through major, essential major digital change programmes.
Instead, we hobble on with dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous systems that devour precious resources but aren’t protecting our borders, aren’t helping emergency services save lives, don’t support our national defence or the personnel who risk their lives in service of it and don’t help catch the people falling through the gaping holes in our welfare safety net. Nation, citizen and taxpayer deserve much better than this and we’ll continue to challenge departments in front of us until they get it.”
Taxpayers and tax agents know all too well about the ongoing issues of HMRC's legacy IT systems. HMRC's CEO and permanent secretary, Jim Harra is overseeing a program of change that is ongoing. It is hoped that this is going to be faster than the 20-year timetable for other projects.