Why does digital transformation fail?

Digital transformation is a core priority for the public sector overall, but many NHS, local government, housing, policing, and higher education organisations still face challenges in implementation. In this edition of Hot Topics, we’re taking a closer look at some of these problems – and more importantly, how to navigate them – so your organisation can accelerate transformation and drive success.

Legacy infrastructure

Public sector organisations are commonly long-established, which means their operations often rely on legacy systems and infrastructure that can be extremely difficult to replace or upgrade. This can hinder the drive for digital transformation, as many organisations feel trapped by these systems - due to the effort (and cost) involved in removing them.

Many providers are reluctant (or charge a large fee) to release data from such systems. Plus, these systems often have many processes built around them, making it even harder to get rid of them. These barriers can really stall innovation and scalability – but they don’t need to. Digital transformation is flexible, and it’s often a better approach to avoid reinventing the wheel.

There are many ways to modernise legacy systems without completely eradicating them. Apps and eForms can be directly integrated with back-office systems to digitise front-end data capture and remove paper-based processes. Robotic process automation (RPA) can be used to extract, migrate and synchronise data in multiple places – emulating rekeying with complete accuracy. APIs and web services can be used to create integrations and communicate with other data sources. Workflow can bring these complex activities together in a single tidy process. Proper scoping and implementation should focus on working with what you have to achieve streamlining and savings, rather than spending more to work against it.

Budget constraints

Public sector organisations operate on tight budgets – of course, delivering services is the top priority, which means improving them can sometimes fall by the wayside. When handling budget constraints, it’s important to properly assess the ROI of a project to ensure its impact – projects that save considerable resources, time and money offset the effort required to drive them.

It’s also important to choose tools that provide real value. Software that can be used on a corporate basis is usually more favourable, as this investment can be applied time and time again to achieve streamlining and savings across the breadth of an organisation. While the initial investment for a one-off, off-the-shelf solution might seem less expensive initially, they often can’t provide the widescale ROI required by public sector organisations on their digital transformation journeys – costing more in the long run.

Lack of cohesion and vision

Digital transformation requires strong leadership and a clear vision from top-level management to drive change. Without committed leadership and support, initiatives may lack direction and fail to gain traction. This is a common issue where digital teams and SLTs aren’t aligned – despite holding the same priorities. The cause of this issue is often a lack of understanding. Digital transformation technologies can be tricky to understand without a technical background, and sometimes digital teams and decision-making units simply aren’t speaking the same language. 

To navigate this barrier, it’s imperative to ensure the benefits of your proposed digital transformation plans are properly communicated. Don’t get too bogged down with technical jargon. It’s important to approach your vision with big-picture thinking – for example, if you plan to acquire a low-code app and eForm builder to replace multiple data collection processes across your organisation, focus on the ROI when making your case. At first, replacing some seemingly minor paper-based processes might not seem appealing to public sector leadership teams – but the time, resources, paper and monetary savings definitely will be. Thinking more about the why than the what in these conversations will lead to better understanding and cohesion, getting everyone on the same page.

Lack of user-centric design

Digital transformation initiatives must prioritise the needs and experiences of citizens and stakeholders. Failure to adopt a user-centric approach may result in solutions that do not meet user expectations or address their pain points effectively. To mitigate this challenge, it’s important to ensure end-users are brought into the project as early as possible – one of the leading causes of transformation regression is poorly designed solutions that don’t address the requirements of users.

Invest time in user research and usability testing throughout the development process. This ensures digital solutions are intuitive, accessible, and aligned with user needs – making them much more successful in practice. End-users – be that the public or those working to serve it – must be reflected in any digital transformation, as it is their needs that inform the need for the project in the first place. Prioritising useability, convenience and accessibility is key in any public sector digital transformation project.

Procurement challenges

Procurement processes in public sector organisations tend to be lengthy, rigid and focused on compliance rather than innovation. These challenges can hinder the adoption of emerging technologies and innovative solutions from the private sector. To overcome procurement challenges, it’s important to choose vendors with extensive experience working with public sector organisations – those with expert knowledge in the field, who can follow and assist in this process.

Skills gap

Public sector organisations may lack the necessary expertise to implement and manage digital transformation initiatives completely independently. Recruiting and retaining skilled professionals in fields such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and software development can be challenging. To address the skills gap, organisations can invest in project services, mentorship programmes, or education services.

Building in-house skills is an excellent idea – digital skill shortages are rife across the public sector, but the digital transformation landscape is rapidly accelerating. Promoting self-sufficiency and a culture of personal development is highly advantageous in these organisations, as ROI is far greater when teams can deliver their projects with their own talent. Cultivating these skills may take an initial investment of time, resources and even money – but these are quickly made back by a digital team able to continuously streamline and futureproof services for years to come.

Fragmented governance and collaboration

Public sector digital transformation often requires collaboration across multiple departments, organisations, and sectors. Fragmented structures and siloed teams can hinder coordination and collaboration, leading to inefficiencies and duplication of efforts. To foster collaboration and alignment, public sector organisations can establish cross-functional teams, inter-agency task forces, and shared governance models.

Additionally, organisations – and collectives, like ICBs - can leverage technology platforms and collaboration tools to facilitate communication and information sharing across organisational boundaries. By breaking down silos and promoting collaboration, organisations can streamline digital transformation efforts and deliver better outcomes for service users.


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Ready to succeed?

Addressing these challenges requires a holistic approach that involves cultural change, strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, investment in technology and talent - and a commitment to continuous improvement. Successful digital transformation in the public sector requires perseverance, adaptability, and a willingness to learn from both successes and failures. With over 40 years of experience in public sector digital transformation, we’re here to help. Our transformational technologies are specifically designed for the public sector – and our project, education and support services are tailored to ensure you get the very most from Evolve, achieving ROI that goes above and beyond. Don’t hesitate to reach out to the team for more information – or get inspired with our library of proven use cases.