UK: Principles For A Digital Future

Last Updated: 13 June 2017
Article by David Gourlay

Audit Scotland recently released a new report on the lessons that can be learned from public sector ICT projects to support a digital future and the modernisation of public sector services. The report builds on previous Audit Scotland reports including "Managing ICT contracts" and "Managing ICT contracts in central government – An Update". 


Morag Campsie, audit manager with Audit Scotland, commented on the report; "It's no wonder that as a society we increasingly expect our public bodies to use digital when delivering services, or that more and more organisations themselves are placing digital at the centre of their plans for future transformation of services."   Over the last five years, the Scottish public sector has spent around £4 billion on ICT, to move towards offering digital services to keep up with public expectations.  However, designing and managing public sector ICT projects has been a challenge.

The report identifies five principles that are integral to delivering effective and successful ICT projects:

  • Comprehensive planning;
  • Active governance;
  • Putting users at the heart of the project;
  • Clear leadership; and
  • Projects set in a central framework of oversight and assurance.

The Principles

1. Comprehensive planning

Audit Scotland identified in the report that most problems for public sector ICT projects originate in the set-up of the project itself. It being integral to set out what the organisation wants to achieve from the project and how it will do this.  In order to assess what is needed, Audit Scotland considers that organisations should ensure they involve the intended users to evaluate what they want it to achieve, rather than being guided by technology.  Splitting the project into smaller projects may be helpful allowing implementation in stages to avoid one large "go-live" failure.

Audit Scotland found that organisations should not underestimate the complexity of an idea; to fully appreciate the task ahead, they should take time to fully understand the business processes, what they would like to change and what is needed to effect this change. The procurement route should be considered early on to ensure this is consistent with how the project is to be managed.

The report also highlights the importance of identifying people within the organisation with the skills and experience to deliver the change. This is not just about technical or digital skills, but project management, negotiation, management and business analysis.  Organisations should also identify skills and experience gaps within the organisation and assess how best to fill these.

2. Active governance

For effective ICT projects, organisations should have controls in place to support decision making and provide oversight to all levels of a project. Governance of a project should be active, dynamic and flexible to meet the changing needs of the project. A balance needs to be struck between supporting and scrutinising the project to ensure it meets the goals and requirements.

Governance should also involve looking at and managing risk within a project and how to deliver the project with focus on speed of delivery, control and decision making.

To ensure a project stays on track, organisations should conduct independent reviews and ensure that any recommendations for progress are followed.

3. Putting users at the heart of a project

Organisations should identify everyone, both internal and external, who will use the new system or service and seek opinions from them about what is needed from the system or service, what they expect and how this will work in practice. Getting users involved from the design to implementation of a project will ensure they are invested in the project and it will be more likely to meet its outcomes.

There should also be a training programme implemented before the project goes live to ensure that staff are able to use the system and are able to provide support.  Knowledge should be constantly transferred between those who design/implement the system and those who are going to use the system.

4. Clear leadership

The report highlighted that one of the main factors in failure of ICT projects in the public sector was weak leadership, high turnover of senior management or a lack of commitment from senior management.  To ensure that a project is properly motivated and driven, there should be clear roles and responsibilities set out for all those involved to avoid lack of communication or drive to continue the project.

5. Projects set in a central framework of oversight and assurance

This provides an additional level of oversight and assurance, to ensure these are delivered.  Having a strategic oversight mechanism in place helps to identify risks that need to be dealt with for the project to succeed.  The major challenge for public sector organisations is having access to people with the correct level of skill and experience to assess risk in a project.


It is hoped that by setting out these principles, taken from important lessons learned from other public sector ICT failures, public bodies will be able to implement more successful ICT projects.

The MacRoberts IPTC team has extensive experience of advising on complex ICT procurements.

© MacRoberts 2017


The material contained in this article is of the nature of general comment only and does not give advice on any particular matter. Recipients should not act on the basis of the information in this e-update without taking appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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