Defence digital plan hampered by lack of skills and ageing tech, NAO report finds

Auditors report that MoD needs to hire scores of technical staff and spend billions on IT upgrades to deliver on strategy

Credit: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Delivery of government’s Digital Strategy for Defence is beset by issues and inadequacies that threaten successful completion, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) reviewing the Ministry of Defence’s implementation. 

The strategy’s objectives completion date is 2025, which is “ambitious” due to the “scale of the challenge and the persistent barriers to change,” according to the report released this month. 

The Digital Strategy for Defence is the MoD’s plan to improve cybersecurity and modernise digitisation. The three goals are: create a digital ‘backbone’ to allow for data to be shared seamlessly and securely across all military and civilian domains; develop a digital ‘foundry’ for centralised software and data analytics development; and improve and empower its digital function so skilled digital specialists can deliver the transformation and integration of the technology across MoD.

The NAO report examines the progress of the MoD regarding the implementation of their digital strategy from May 2021, when the strategy was announced, up to June 2022. 
The main issues identified with the strategy are the lack of complete plan or clear way of measuring progress. 

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The department also lacks adequate personnel to complete the task, the report says. Defence Digital currently aims to hire 151 people with high-priority technical skills for the large undertaking. By June 2022, only 42 people have been hired, with MoD in the process of bringing in 39 more, according to the report. It is understood that the intent is that new recruits will fill critical roles and ideally be a mix of employees and contractors.

The MoD’s “historically poor reputation for project and programme delivery” is largely due to a substantial amount of legacy technology that needs to be replaced or updated, as it is currently “a barrier to integrating digital activity across defence,” the NAO report said. According to MoD Defence Digital’s 2019 estimation, the department would need to spend £11.7 bn to update or replace ageing legacy technology over the following decade.

The NAO primarily recommends the MoD “immediately creates a clear plan for the digital strategy” that includes wider efforts to transform the department, prioritise all activities needed to achieve set goals, create clear indicators to demonstrate future progress, and develop a consistent set of performance information for both digital and wider departmental function. 

To help address the need for tech expertise, the department is understood to be working on a major ‘Digital Skills for Defence’ initiative to strengthen the digital skills of current defence leaders, digital professionals and other employees. To strengthen IT infrastructure, meanwhile, the MoD is investing in a new ‘Digital Foundry’ so the department can start exploiting data as a strategic asset, as well as enhance cyber resiliency.

“The Digital Defence Strategy provides a strong foundation for the transformation of defence. It is ambitious in how we need to implement digital transformation across a large and complex enterprise like defence,” a MoD spokesperson said. “We agree with the NAO’s recommendation that delivery can be strengthened by creating a clear, overarching plan to coordinate and monitor delivery. We are putting this plan in place immediately.”


Katherine Hapgood

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