Centres of excellence: delivering projects with high social value
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Central government has built a centre of excellence for digital services (GDS – Government Digital Service). It is also in the process of developing centres of excellence for procurement (CCS – Crown Commercial Services) and project delivery (MPA – Major Projects Authority ). Responsibility for delivery still lies with individual departments – but these groups provide governance, principles of best practice and (in some situations) people to assist with delivery.
CSS is relatively new, having only been created in the fourth quarter of 2013. It is too early to tell whether the organisation will be successful or not, although the delay of a number of activities in recent months may indicate that the department is struggling to cope with the demands created by increasing the number and range of government suppliers. These issues appeared to grow during the report and we saw increasing notes of concern from suppliers, trade press and analysis organisations such as Kable. A careful eye should be kept on this situation to determine if the growing pains that every new organisation goes through can be overcome.
MPA has been in existence for more time but is still growing. As well as other major programmes (for example High-Speed 2, HS2) the next government will face major digital delivery challenges which, if delivered incorrectly, could cause both significant cost overruns and impact to people’s lives.
These challenges include the need to replace the Airwave emergency network and the opportunity to transform operations within DWP and HMRC due to the expiry of long-running contracts. There are potentially billions of pounds in annual savings to be won if these operations are transformed in line with the evolving best practice.
We have seen no assessment of the government’s digital delivery capability and its ability to deliver on these programmes. Does it have sufficient internal capability? How much will it need to rely on external suppliers? And – perhaps above all – are mechanisms in place for honestly assessing, disclosing and learning from both successes and failures in the work of these centres of excellence?
Despite the successes of GDS with many of the digital exemplars, the failures of the Universal Credit programme have amply demonstrated the potential of large complex programmes that are enabled by digital technologies to go massively wrong. This programme has caused significant monetary loss to the government, but it has also disrupted people’s lives and delayed policies that may have improved millions of others.
The programme was under MPA oversight but still failed. There has been ample public discussion about the repeated failure to hit delivery targets but little disclosure of why it has been failing. Are lessons being learnt? Would greater transparency have helped avoid the failure?
Similar questions could be asked about the NHS care.data programme. It is also worth observing that the government’s Identity Assurance programme will require all UK citizens to create a new online identity and, as we have discussed, has already missed a number of delivery targets. Neither of these programmes is within the remit of the MPA.
In none of these cases are we intending to comment on the desired policy outcomes; but it is important to note that our proposed use of social value as a primary measure for prioritising efforts would need to extend to project management and governance.
Rather than focusing our governance and best delivery experts solely on projects where there is significant spend we should be focusing these experts on projects with a high social value. These are major projects. Only then will we be able to align excellence and best practice with real social impact and build a new kind of digital government.
“Achieving organizational learning requires staff continuity, not allowing Senior Responsible Owners to change at any ‘appropriate break’ in the life of an ICT project.” – Civil Society Organisation
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