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March 10, 2023updated 11 May 2023 12:06pm

Doomed to failure? CDDO struggling to implement UK government digital transformation

Government departments are struggling to boost their digital skillsets, with 37% of recruitment campaigns for tech staff failing.

By Sophia Waterfield

An audit of the work of the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) has exposed failings within government departments attempting to close their digital skills gaps, with the public sector continuing to lag behind the private sector when it comes to talent. One expert told Tech Monitor that until the internal culture within the government changes and embraces digital transformation, the CDDO’s work will fail.

Image of an audit taking place.
The CDDO’s work has been analysed by the National Audit Office, finding that it might not achieve its goals by 2025. (Photo by Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

The report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO) evaluates the government’s approach to addressing the underlying issues that have hindered previous attempts at digital transformation. As part of its work, the NAO looked at the CDDO’s roadmap and departmental leaders supporting the transformation within the government and whether senior leaders across the UK government had a suitable level of digital capability.

The Cabinet Office says that the digital transformation programme is expected to achieve efficiencies of £1bn for the government by 2025.

However, the figures tell a depressing story – only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with the 8% industry average, and digital, data and technology (DDaT) apprenticeships have seen a 20% reduction. Demand for DDaT roles is high across the government, says the report, with a 7% increase in vacancies between April to October 2022, but 37% of DDaT recruitment campaigns fail.

NAO also warned that while the CDDO is laying “good foundations” for the future, many of the “critical and more challenging milestones lie in the future”. It also says that the relatively small budget (£8bn has been committed by the Tresuary through to 2025) and headcount allocated to the department, which sits within the Cabinet Office, is already affecting the intended reforms to how the centre of government treats digital programmes.

It’s too early to say if the CDDO can achieve its objectives

In June 2022, the CDDO presented its 21-point roadmap for digital transformation for the central government.

The roadmap looks to achieve six missions including transforming public services with efficient digital services, launching the single digital identity programme One Login, enabling easier data-sharing cross-government, empowering government departments to use modern technology, acquiring digital skills at scale and identifying the right funding models. These missions are to be achieved by 2025.

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For 2022, the NAO report says that all milestones have been achieved, showing that the CDDO is off to a promising start. However, it has said that it is “too early to say” if the aims of the roadmap can be achieved.

“Many business leaders [in government] do not yet have the expertise required to comprehend and tackle the challenges the civil service faces in a digital age,” says the NAO report.

“Stronger digital expertise and capacity-building, sustained support from the centre of government and the continued goodwill of department senior business leaders are needed to maintain momentum,” it continues, warning that without these things, the roadmap will “peter out” as its 11 predecessors have done.

The government’s main challenge is achieving efficiency savings

Because of past failings to address legacy systems, the government struggles with achieving efficiency savings. According to NAO, the civil services employ over half a million people, with central government departments spending £456bn on running day-to-day public service operations.

Some government IT systems have been in place for decades with their ageing data being a key source of inefficiency and a major hurdle for modernisation. Digital transformation of these services is “instrumental in achieving efficiencies” says NAO, with potentially huge gains.

Legacy systems exist in departments such as the Home Office, the Driving Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The oldest cited by the NAO is the Police National Computer (PNC), which is the main database of criminal records used by all front-line police forces, and was originally introduced in 1974. In 2021, it was announced that plans to replace the PNC were running five years behind schedule.

In its 2021 report, The challenges in implementing digital change, NAO already identified challenges that the government must address before starting major digital programmes, including business leaders' lack of digital capability. "Digital leaders in government have a good understanding of the challenges the government faces and bring much-needed expertise to the public sector," the NAO said. "However, they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support needed from senior decision-makers."

Internal culture needs to change if CDDO is to succeed

The revelation that the UK's government departments are struggling for workers with DDaT skills comes at a bad time for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has pushed for the UK to become a tech superpower and is dealing with civil servants striking for better wage increases.

Rob Anderson, research director, public sector at GlobalData, says that this a "real conundrum" for the UK government. But he also says that the culture within government departments needs to change, citing the lack of uptake of digital training from non-digital personnel, especially senior leaders.

"Part of it is that they've got other priorities and having to juggle limited funding that puts pressure on services," says Anderson. "There's pressure to keep the non-digital workers in terms of the churn of work, lack of opportunity and progress with salaries... and they're not managing to persuade those people that digital can help with that situation."

He also explains that some of the longer-serving civil servants see digital as a nice to have rather than a necessity, which doesn't help CDDO's cause: "Unless you can get them to understand what a step change it can make then it will be, forever, the way it is."

The government continue to be optimistic, saying that it is putting digital at the heart of what it does and upskilling 90% of its senior civil servants in digital.

“As the NAO report recognises, CDDO is playing a leading role in delivering long-term digital transformation across government," a government spokesperson told Tech Monitor. It also said that the number of DDaT professionals in the civil service continues to grow, with an increase of 10% to almost 26,000.

Read more: Will new UK Science and Technology Framework have the desired effect?

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