In conversation with Max Tse

What would you say is the biggest barrier to improving digital capacity across central government?

GDS and others have done much to build capacity of specialist skills and raise understanding of the opportunities of technology since our survey on the digital skills gap in government three years ago. But there is still a big barrier to getting people to deal comfortably with technology and see the opportunities without being overwhelmed by technical detail. An experienced CTO talked recently about the need for everyone – particularly at senior leadership levels – to be comfortable challenging aspects of technology in programmes, as they would challenge financial details or HR implications. Supporting this, we are likely to see growing need for people straddling different areas of expertise and bringing integrated perspectives.

How should organisations maintain value for money during a digital transformation project?

Transformation programmes can evolve substantially over time from what they set out to do, making it difficult to assess value for money against a clear baseline. We’ve recently published guidance for boards and audit committees (and senior leaders) in public organisations to help them focus on the key decision points. What should they expect from transformation programmes as they start up? How should they assess changes in focus or approach during the programme? And when should they close programmes and hand over responsibility for sustaining and expanding benefits in live running?

 What would you say are the biggest challenges to successful digital transformation across central government?

The biggest priorities for any transformation are supporting an organisation-wide effort that doesn’t just focus on technology, and keeping organisational focus on transformation, given the many competing demands on senior leaders. The hardest – but most valuable – part is changing the way people and processes work. New services are great but it is important not to extrapolate too heavily from a few successes to assume transformation has succeeded.

These are not new issues – as we drew out in lessons from transformation we published three years ago. But we’re now seeing them translate into pressure on funding as transformation programmes take longer or deliver fewer benefits than expected.

What are your key priorities at the NAO this year?

In terms of transformation we are focused on how government as a whole is prioritising activity to meet the demands of EU exit, what this means for existing programmes and projects, and ensuring the conditions for long-term transformation, including our work on government planning and the role of HM Treasury.

Also key, government needs to keep strengthening its data use and management, as we recommended in digital transformation in government. Sharing data is important, and difficult, but most essential is that organisations have clarity about the data they have, how it’s managed and, particularly how it’s being used. Many of the strongest claims (and some of the most notable failures) for transformation have come from the opportunities or problems created by using and managing data differently.

What opportunities do you see that the government could leverage to improve its digital processes and offerings?

There is a lot more experience, understanding and capability now across government. Our reports have also shown is that public sector organisations do recognise the opportunities for transformation and the potential to use technology to improve the way government works for us all. We shouldn’t underestimate how important this shift in culture and perspective has been.

A vital part of moving ahead is to make sure we capture and share lessons so that the eco-system around transformation – like how we fund, control, oversee and assess progress – takes account what we’ve learned while still safeguarding value for money for taxpayers and citizens.

Max Tse is the Executive Leader for Digital Transformation at the National Audit Office, and will be speaking on ‘Balancing technological transformation with cultural change’at the Public Sector Show on 26th June, at ExCel London.