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Why is the government “a very harsh environment for digital projects”?

Credits: Dominic Lipinski / PA Archive / Press Association Images

Governments are “a very harsh environment for digital projects,” but intergovernmental standards and a more iterative approach should help improve delivery, said Alex Chisholm, chief operating officer of civil servants.

Scale, complexity, and outdated technology all make it difficult for governments to make digital changes, Chisholm told parliamentarians at a public accounting committee at a hearing on today’s subject.

The hearing took place this summer after a report by the National Audit Office stated that public digital programs had resulted in a “consistent pattern of performance degradation” over 25 years.

“Government is a very harsh environment for digital projects. This is sometimes called a” brownfield site. ” There’s a lot of legacy, a lot of old systems and old data, and sometimes it’s a hindrance to progress. ” Chisholm, who is also the Vice-Minister of the Cabinet Office. “Of course, even if you’re using a live service, you’re not building something new. [and] They often build on existing operations with real customers who rely on these services. “

He also calls the scale and complexity of government digital projects “beyond comparison” with those of the private sector, and the uniqueness of government digital needs is often impossible to purchase off-the-shelf services. I added that it means that.


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The program has been “excessively outsourced” in the past, and client functionality within the department has been a “small resource”, leading to a reliance on the private sector. He said the government is trying to build internal capacity to deal with this.

But he nevertheless said that in recent years there have been significant advances in improving the offering of digital projects.

Asked how central coordination of digital services and projects would be compared to Treasury spending monitoring, Chisholm acknowledged the “difference in maturity” between the two. However, he states that the specific functional standards introduced, which require the project to pass certain standards before moving forward, are similar to the Treasury Green Book and public fund management tests. I did.

He also said the introduction of a central digital and data office, which inherited various standards and control functions when it was founded within a year, is a step in this direction.

“Some degree of uncertainty”
Joanna Davinson, head of CDDO, appeared with Chisholm and acknowledged that she tends to be too optimistic about what the project can offer. Due to this issue, various types of projects were carried out beyond the government-wide budget and deadlines.

“Every IT or digital system has some uncertainty,” she said. “I’m always suspicious of people who come to me and say,’In the three years of June, this system will turn off or this will turn on.’ You can’t plan at that level. Improved reliability and accuracy in a digital environment. Therefore, we must first recognize that uncertainty and think more about dealing with it. “

Asked if this required a systematic review of how the project was planned, Davinson said the question was instead one of learning from competence and experience.

“I don’t know if we really need to change the funding and program delivery process, but we have to realize that we need to be more skilled and iterative about how to apply them. Must be, “she said.

She said there is a growing awareness of the need for flexibility when designing and implementing digital projects.

“We can’t always explain the entire roadmap in detail because we don’t know what to find first. As technology and circumstances change, we need to be able to flexibly adjust the roadmap,” she says. say.

Chisholm and Davinson have joined Tom Read, Chief Executive Officer of Government Digital Service, to strengthen the governance of digital projects and agree that a more iterative approach is needed. Reed, in his previous role as Chief Digital Information Officer of the Ministry of Justice, is a way for the Ministry’s leadership, including the Secretary-General, to request regular updates to programs that enable it using unproven technology. He said he was impressed with. More video calls between prisoners and their families.

He said that the various stages of a digital project (discovery, private beta, public beta, etc.) are “proving that you’re doing the right thing.” If the service doesn’t work well at these stages, “stop or pivot. This is a basic principle we really need to keep in implementing digital transformation programs in government.”

Chisholm also said that broader government procurement reforms address issues that arise when departments commit to overly rigorous planning or decide which technology to use early in the process. Suggested that it might be useful.

He said in the past that sourcing digital services has tended to be overly specific about what they have to offer, and the lowest-cost providers are most likely to win the deal.

“The problem with that is that by the time it’s actually delivered, it’s already out of date with your requirements and you’re trying to catch up,” he explained.

According to Chisholm, the solution shortens the cycle of adopting a “partner approach” with suppliers that focuses on the requirements as the project progresses, rather than the traditional procurement approach where requirements are determined early. That is.

“It’s also very important to break up a large program, which we find very difficult to deliver, into smaller, more modular elements that are much more open to SMEs. , The risks associated with offering are much less and you can get something more convenient. Much faster, “he added.

As these efforts are underway to improve project implementation, the government is also working to enable top-level civil servants to develop digital skills and meet the needs of digital projects. ..

He also said that the level of employment of digital leaders within the department is rising, and if it could have been hired as a director in the past and treated “like an IT department,” the best digital and information The person in charge said that he is now often the director and members. Of the executive team of the department.

He added that all audit, risk, and assurance committees have digital expertise to ensure that they are not treated as “retrofits.”

Why is the government “a very harsh environment for digital projects”?

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