Public spending watchdog warns national digital aims hindered by skills and leadership challenges

A public spending watchdog has warned that national digital aims are being held back by key skills and leadership challenges.

The Scottish Government also does not know how what progress has been made on its 2017 digital strategy and how much investment is required to deliver it.

According to a new Audit Scotland reportthere is no ‘complete picture’ of what has been achieved across the public sector so far, which actions have had the ‘most impact’, nor where there are any ‘gaps in progress’.

At the launch of the national strategy – Realising Scotland’s full potential in a digital world – there was no baseline assessment across the public sector of how much money would be required to deliver it. As a result, there is no way of knowing whether the existing strategy is achievable within current or future budgets, making it difficult to prioritise what to work on.

Audit Scotland, which scrutinises public sector performance, highlighted a series of issues within its Enabling digital government report, and has suggested a number of key recommendations to improve performance.

The report noted there had been some good early progress towards putting digital at the heart of everything government does and guidance has been introduced to ensure new services are designed around the needs of citizens – with the establishment of the Office of the Chief Designer, as part of an internal restructure last year which created three new divisions and aimed to improve governance, monitoring and prioritisation. And initiatives like Civtech – a radical new procurement programme – have made it easier for public bodies to develop innovative products in partnership with UK tech companies.

A new government assurance framework is also helping individual projects reduce the risks historically associated with public sector IT projects. But a digital skills shortage in Scotland and across the government has meant there has not been enough staff to share common lessons learned. This remains a barrier to progress.

Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government is in a unique position to show digital leadership by bringing people together and sharing lessons learned across Scotland’s public sector.

“Governments across the world are facing the same challenge, and bringing about collaboration will not be easy. But Scotland’s relatively small size presents a clear opportunity for the government to move from an operational role to one of strategic leadership and reap all the benefits that shift could bring to citizens and the wider economy.”

Digital Economy Minister Kate Forbes said: “As Minister with a specific remit for digital, I am clear that we must put digital at the centre of everything we do and lead by example.

 “This report recognises the challenge of delivering the ambitious vision of embedding digital in our public bodies and across our public services. I am pleased that Audit Scotland acknowledges the early progress made by the Scottish Government in this respect and the success of programmes of digital transformation that have been delivered in the last 24 months. But we realise that there is more work to be done.

 “Our Digital Strategy for Scotland is ambitious and it sets out actions for Scotland to become a leading digital country.

 “This ambition is matched by collective, coordinated actions that have already delivered good progress.

 “We do, however, recognise that we will only achieve more through continued collaborative working across the public, private and third sectors. We will consider Audit Scotland’s recommendations.”

The report recommended a number of measures to the Scottish Government including: articulating its strategic leadership role ‘more clearly by facilitating a more collaborative approach’, ensuring leadership has the ‘technical foresight’ to understand technology developments and what they mean for the public sector, ensuring flexibility within recruitment, and keeping governance and monitoring under review.’

Recommendations also pointed to ‘jointly mapping out all digital programmes…to better prioritise, drawing knowledge from other organisations and governments’, better communicating Digital Directorate support services to central government, ensuring the new integrated assurance team has the required people and skills to perform reviews and share lessons, making sure all major project reviews are carried out by a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or equivalent and developing commercial and programme and project management skills as well as digital skills.