Legacy tech: Half of government’s £5bn annual IT spend dedicated to ‘keeping the lights on’

Written by Sam Trendall on 27 July 2021 in News

Report identifies continued prevalence of ageing tech as one of the major challenges facing the civil service’s digital ambitions

Credit: Adobe Stock

Half of departments’ collective spending on IT each year is dedicated to “keeping the lights on” of legacy technology, a government-commissioned report has found.

The Organising for digital delivery report from the Digital Economy Council found that, in 2019, government faced cumulative annual costs of £2.3bn to maintain legacy IT. This represents almost half of the £4.7bn in total that was spent on IT across government that year.

The prevalence of legacy technology – often referred as technical debt – is one of seven major challenges which the report claims represent the most significant barriers to government achieving its digital ambitions.

Referencing a study from the Government Security profession, the report said: “Some departmental services fail to meet even the minimum cybersecurity standards, and the inability to extract useable data from these legacy systems has been cited by multiple interviewees as one of the greatest barriers to process transformation and innovations across government. By way of example, the Home Office – the department with the largest single technology spend – whilst having a clear understanding of the risks and after three to four years of effort, has not been able to retire any of their 12 large operational legacy systems.”

The Digital Economy Council listed “uncertain quality of technical product delivery” as the first of the seven challenges identified in the report.

Related content

“Whilst there have been many examples of effective project and service delivery, these have been offset by numerous examples of projects which have failed to deliver to the required specification, or have come in significantly behind time and over budget,” it said.

The “failed” project to develop the GOV.UK Verify identity-assurance tool was picked out as an example of a programme that typified a failure to follow best practices, such as “ruthless focus [on] minimising feature and scope creep, and a commitment to ongoing product maintenance and feature development in the light of observed user behaviour.”

The need for longer-term product maintenance needs to be better reflected in funding models, some tech leaders told the council.

“Building technology services is not the same as building bridges – it’s revenue not capex,” said one.

A representative of the Ministry of Justice told the report’s authors: “Back in 2014/15 we built a pretty good service that helps citizens book visits with people in prisons. We did tons of research and got to a 60% take up after launch. But, once built, the funding disappeared, the service atrophied, the tech stack atrophied and take up has fallen right away.”

Operating metrics
Another significant challenge to the government’s digital aims is “relatively weak operational performance”, according to the report, which notes that the quarterly reviews of operations and progress that are standard in “leading private or public sector organisations” are rare in Whitehall.

“This would typically involve reviewing both a set of ongoing operational metrics – system uptime, volume of attempted cyberattacks, customer satisfaction and adoption metrics, cost and efficiency performance and so forth – along with reviewing progress on major development projects so that any issues can be identified at a relatively early stage and any necessary corrective action taken,” the report said. “This routine discipline is not currently in place in any systematic way across the civil service.”

Another current barrier to digital delivery is government’s “failure to leverage scale”. This manifests in procurement, where many departments sign individual contracts for products such as software licences and also, the report claims, in “an inability to share best practice between different departments, and a lack of consistency in technical standards”.

The report also identifies “missed opportunities in leveraging government-held data sets” as another significant challenge – particularly given that “many government departments are investing significant sums in collecting and storing often very large data sets – but making little use of this data to influence action of decision making”.

The penultimate issue picked out by the report was a lack of technical skills among knowledge among senior civil service leaders outside of the digital, data and technology cohort.

“At a minimum, leaders should be capable of auditing effectively the performance of their digital functions, including having a realistic expectation of how long projects should take, what they should cost, and what questions to ask in order to assess whether delivery is on- or off-track,” it said.

The final challenge is what the council characterises as “confusion” over the role of the Government Digital Service and the centralised DDaT function – which is now overseen by the newly established Central Digital and Data Office.

The report claims that GDS “would benefit from a refocusing around its central mission” to regain what it says is lost confidence around permanent secretaries. 

To address the seven challenges, the report has made eight recommendations: 

  • build mechanisms to put the citizen at the heart of all design decisions
  • strengthen the accountability of departments and their Permanent Secretaries
  • hire a permanent secretary-level head of function for DDaT
  • refocus and add teeth to the centre
  • create clear investment to address the legacy debt
  • set up a quarterly business review process
  • invest in developing the technical fluency of senior civil service leadership
  • create a government data application centre of excellence

The report was commissioned by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Its publication came alongside that of another review, conducted by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who examined the role and efficacy of centralised government functions.

The current ministerial incumbent of the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove,  said: “I want to thank Lord Maude and the members of the Digital Economy Council for their very thoughtful and detailed investigations into the work of the Cabinet Office and the wider government. Both reports bring up some key issues which we must address, such as improving civil service recruitment to make sure the people we employ better reflect the people we serve, tackling our history of outdated IT systems and transforming the way we use data across government. Much of this work is already underway, but there is more to do and no time to waste.”


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

Share this page




Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.

Related Articles

Whitehall shared-services implementation requires funding and focus, MPs warn
9 May 2023

Public Accounts Committee warns that lack of support could imperil delivery

EXCL: Cabinet Office launches £12m project to move all data and users from Google to Microsoft
14 April 2023

Department to develop single internal infrastructure that will replace two incumbent platforms

DWP, Home Office, MoJ and Defra launch £1bn tender for shared services tech providers
2 June 2023

Departments look to sign joint deal with a software provider and a system integrator

Digital minister: ‘It’s important to the government that the British public has confidence in how we use their data’
23 May 2023

In a piece written for PublicTechnology, parliamentary secretary Alex Burghart discusses progress with One Login and the significance of legislative changes

Related Sponsored Articles

Proactive defence: A new take on cyber security
16 May 2023

The traditional reactive approach to cybersecurity, which involves responding to attacks after they have occurred, is no longer sufficient. Murielle Gonzalez reports on a webinar looking at...