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MoD's digital projects undermined by severe lack of tech skills, report finds

The Ministry of Defence says it plans to spend £11.7 billion over the next 10 years updating or replacing legacy systems

The National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) does not have enough employees with the right digital skills to support its digital strategy.

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The MoD said it is finding it hard to recruit and retain talent, as it is unable to match the kind of salaries offered by the private sector, and because the pay scales available to digital specialists in government vary, the NAO stated in its review published on Friday.

Technologists also view the MoD as bureaucratic, and the hiring process, including getting security clearance, as too lengthy.

The NAO has reviewed the MoD’s Defence Digital Strategy, which is aiming to achieve three strategic outcomes by 2025 to adapt to the rigid digitisation of warfare.

First, it’s aiming to create a digital backbone, where it will have the right technology, people, and organisational processes to allow the MoD to share data easily and securely with decision-makers across defence.

It also hopes to create a digital foundry, a software and data analytics development centre. Finally, the MoD is planning on creating an empowered digital function, which is a skilled and agile community of digital specialists.

The shortfall of technical skills is undermining the delivery of both individual programmes and the strategy, the report found. Defence Digital, the team responsible for digitising the MoD, is trying several approaches to fix its skills gap, but its progress has taken longer than planned.

“The Digital Strategy for Defence aims to transform capabilities through people, technology and data. If implemented successfully, it should support the seamless sharing of data and coordinated decision making needed for modern warfare,” said Gareth Davies, head of the NAO.

“However, the MoD faces ongoing challenges with its implementation of major technology programmes and acquiring scarce digital skills. The MoD needs a clear plan for prioritising resources to where they are needed most urgently if it is to deliver its ambitions for digital transformation.”

The NAO said the strategy is consistent with good practice it has identified across government. It added that the government hasn’t always understood the quality of its data, has not prioritised its use, and has tolerated data that is not fit for purpose. The strategy recognised that data is a strategic asset and that people and processes are as vital as technology to successful digital change.

The MoD found that its data is hard to access and share, it has gaps in critical skills, its core technology needs updating, and its processes are out of date. Defence Digital estimated it will spend £11.7 billion over 10 years updating or replacing legacy systems, and upgrading to modern replacements will be complex, said the NAO.

The NAO also said that the nature of the MoD’s business creates additional challenges to implementing the strategy. It said the ministry has three security classifications, Official, Secret, and Above Secret, which sometimes require separate digital systems.

The MoD also shares data with international partners and must be able to work with their technology and security policies, adding to the challenge of modernising and integrating technology.

Moreover, Defence Digital’s project delivery has historically suffered from a lack of skilled and experienced personnel, insufficient reporting and assurance, and a culture focused on approvals rather than outcomes. This has undermined trust in its delivery of the strategy, said the NAO.

To implement the strategy by the target data of 2025, the NAO recommends that the MoD should immediately create a delivery plan for the strategy, This should make clear how the strategy integrates with its wider objectives and identifies and prioritises all the activities needed to achieve the strategy’s outcomes. It should also identify what people, skills and funding will be needed and sets clear performance indicators for the strategy’s progress.

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