Whitehall chief pegs annual government digital spending at £20bn

Civil service chief operating officer tells MPs that ‘every single government programme has a strong digital element’

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Government projects spend a cumulative £20bn a year on digital technology, according to civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm.

The government operations head, who also serves as permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, last week told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that there are about 230 technology-focused projects currently in train across government.

But, when asked to put a figure on government’s planned spending on digital transformation, Chisholm said that the “most of the digital expenditure is not actually in technology projects – but is embedded in bigger programmes”.

He estimated that, across all government projects, spending on digital technologies and services comes in at £20bn a year.

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This includes major investments as part of projects where the need for technology may not be immediately apparent.

“Every single government programme has a strong digital element to it,” Chisholm said. “Even with something which feels very physical – like building a new road – there will be a huge amount of digital planning; [there is] all the work on digital twins that they use nowadays. If you actually look at the software development component, that will be very big – even in a physical construction project.”

Elsewhere in his evidence given to the committee, the Whitehall chief said that government has previously been “a very tough environment for digital projects”.

“[This is] partly because of what we call the ‘brownfield site’: there’s a lot of legacy, there’s a lot of previous systems, old data, which stands in the way sometimes of progress,” he said. “It’s also one, of course, in which you have live services, you’re not building something new, [and] you’re often building on top of existing operations with live customers who depend on those services.”

PAC is taking evidence from experts in light of a report published this summer by the National Audit Office that found that government digital programmes have shown “a consistent pattern of underperformance” over a period of 25 years.


Sam Trendall

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