‘Complete overhaul of Defra IT needed to ensure safe food and water,' MPs warn

Creaking tech infrastructure "at constant risk of failure or cyberattack", PAC finds
Photo: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

By Sam Trendall

16 May 2023

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must completely revamp its IT infrastructure or risk threatening the UK’s access to safe food and water, a committee of MPs has said.

The Public Accounts Committee found that, although “Defra has made good progress in tackling its most urgent legacy issues”, 80% of applications used by the department are no longer in mainstream support from their supplier. This means that ongoing security and maintenance requires additional payment from customers – or, in some cases, that support is no longer available at all.

PAC warned in a report that this means many systems are “at constant risk of failure or cyberattack”.

The report said, while Defra’s upgrade work so far has recognised the urgency of addressing these high-risk areas, it “does not have a strategy or vision needed for its long-term digital transformation”.

This can be attributed, in part, to the current lack of detail regarding the department’s intention to undertake much wider reforms of its structure and processes, according to MPs.

“Some decisions about digital services need to be taken without delay,” the report said. “But, without clarity on what the transformed Defra will look like, it is difficult for its digital specialists to prepare.

"If Defra makes decisions and undertakes work as part of improving its digital services before it has decided the future shape and structure of its business operations or before it has determined what its digital requirements are, it risks limiting the usefulness of the systems and causing future problems.”

The department has “not given enough attention to the impact of its poor digital services on its users”, the report said. This impact may include an ongoing need for citizens to use paper forms or IT equipment that would otherwise be obsolete.

The committee also found that Defra remains “over-reliant on contractors because it struggles to recruit and retain the people with the digital skills it needs”. The proportion of temporary staff and freelancers in the department’s DDaT workforce has, however, reduced from 31% to 22% over the past year, according to the report.

Having received only 58% of the funding it bid for during the 2021 Spending Review, access to the necessary financial resources could represent an even bigger obstacle to Defra’s digital transformation, PAC said.

“Defra… cannot deliver all its aspirations with the funding it has available. For example, it aims to digitise all of its 20 most-used services – but none of this work is yet funded.”

The committee recommends that, over the coming months, the department should take steps to better understand the “success factors behind the progress it has made” thus far, before developing “a longer-term digital and data strategy… that reflects the needs” of its agencies and arm’s-length bodies.

The MPs asked Defra to provide them with details of this strategic plan by March 2024.

To help make a better case for funding in the future, PAC also expects the department to have conducted an “analysis of efficiency savings that could be achieved through modernising its systems” and reported the findings of this exercise to the committee.

PAC deputy chair Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said: “Defra’s IT systems are so outmoded and disconnected – where they exist at all, instead of paper forms – that in some cases the professionals who keep our food, water and air safe have been forced to buy obsolete equipment just to fill in the forms to fulfil their regulatory responsibilities.

"We are facing down rapidly spreading animal diseases, maybe the next pandemic, with systems that may rely on moving paper forms around. This cannot continue. We on the PAC will also not accept a situation where Defra spends hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on a disjointed upgrade programme only to find that it no longer fits the structure of new systems of air quality monitoring, food and clean water supply in this country.

"It’s time for a complete overhaul at Defra, with a concurrent, proactive digital strategy that matches every step.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have made significant progress on enhancing and improving the resilience of our current technology and digital services through an effective and wide-ranging investment plan. We have already delivered new and improved services to improve flood warnings, farming and countryside schemes and food imports and exports, developed with the input of end-users and customers.

"Defra is a wide-reaching organisation, and we are committed to improving the quality and availability of our digital services and ensuring our systems are secure and resilient.”

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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