Organisations need to learn key lessons from digital failures, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The body analysed 25 years of government initiatives in digital transformation. But instead of finding gradual improvements in how such projects are implemented, it found repeated mistakes.

“Repeated cycles of vision for radical digital change have been accompanied by perhaps an overly simplistic view of the ease of implementation,” it said. Like many organisations, the government does not implement such initiatives from scratch.

“New ways of doing business and services need to fit into a government landscape still dominated by legacy systems and data,” it said. “As a result, well-intentioned initiatives have petered out, falling short of achieving their intended outcomes.”

Unique challenges

The NAO said that digital initiatives pose unique challenges. Novel technologies add layers of uncertainty that do not exist in, for instance, infrastructure projects “where people can visualise the end product within the laws of physics.” In fact, such understanding governs what is feasible, it said.

In addition, digital project leaders face extra challenges in government. They struggle to get support from senior decision-makers and from the fact that there is low technical fluency across the civil service.

“This contrasts with the commercial world where technology is increasingly seen as a critical delivery lever,” it said. “And senior leaders are expected to have a clear understanding of how to deploy it effectively.

Systemic risks

The NAO identified six steps to get right at the beginning of digital transformation projects.

First, it says, understand aims, ambition and risks. Organisations can:

  • Avoid unrealistic ambitions with unknown levels of risks
  • Ensure the business problem is fully understood before implementing a solution
  • Plan realistic timescales for delivery, which are appropriate to the scope and risk of the programme.

Second, sound engagement with commercial partners is key. In particular:

  • Spend enough time and money exploring requirements with commercial partners at an early stage
  • Adopt a more flexible contracting process that recognises scope and requirements may change
  • Work towards a partnership model based on collaboration with commercial suppliers.

Third, businesses need to develop a better approach to legacy systems and data through. Businesses should:

  • Better plan for replacing legacy systems and ensure these plans are appropriately funded
  • Recognise the move to the cloud will not solve all the challenges of legacy
  • Address data issues in a planned and incremental way, to reduce the need for costly manual exercises.

In addition, organisations need to have a clear idea of the skills it wants to develop, when to use agile methods, and get funding requirements right.

Read, The challenges in implementing digital change.