Lack of digital know-how at top of government contributes to IT failures, MPs say

Public Accounts Committee highlights failure to understand issue of decades-old ‘legacy’ systems used in border control and state pension
Some "legacy" systems and data date from the 1970s, the report said. Photo: wzdd/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By CSW staff

10 Dec 2021

Senior leaders’ lack of digital knowledge and know-how are among reasons that government IT programmes often fail, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has said.

“Most senior leaders are generalists and do not have an operational services or technical background in digital or data. This has contributed to the unrealistic scope of several programmes and the lack of longer-lasting results based on redesigning and transforming public services,” the MPs said in a report today.

“Senior leaders need to grasp the potential for technology and data to transform the business of government, and the need to think strategically about opportunities in the future.”

The committee recommended that the Cabinet Office should establish a digital business change education process for senior civil servants, ministers and departmental boards, with certification required for anyone taking on key roles.

It said some helpful work is already underway, with a recognition that all 5,500 senior civil servants need to have digital and data skills, but that more focus is required on digital business models and how these can transform government.

More generally, the report said a shortage of digital specialists across the economy and higher pay from the private sector means the civil service struggles to recruit and retain the right people.

The report highlighted the issue of "legacy" systems and data, some dating from the 1970s, which are still used for tasks including managing borders and paying the state pension.

Legacy systems, which often use outdated technologies that are no longer developed or supported, are prone to reliability problems, security vulnerabilities and can get in the way of transformational work.

But the committee said departments and the centre of government have only a limited understanding of where legacy systems are in use. Departments fail to understand the difference between incremental changes such as improving existing systems and building new ones on old data, and genuine transformations that could significantly improve efficiency, it added.

It recommended that the Central Digital and Data Office, which was established in May and is currently testing how it can gather information on legacy systems in departments, should create a list of such systems, why they remain in use and how critical they are. By the end of 2022, the CDDO should share an action plan on these with the committee.

The report also said each major programme should have a single office to support the programme director throughout the project’s lifetime, with too much reliance at present on contractors and external consultants for core decisions on design. It recommended that the CDDO should tell what departments what they need to do to improve their IT operational work.

“The short-termism that plagues so much critical policy delivery is nowhere more evident than in government’s staggering efforts to bring crucial, national IT systems into the current century and up to functional speed,” said Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, adding that as a result “we hobble on with dysfunctional, damaging and sometimes dangerous systems”.  

The committee recently criticised the Home Office for a five-year delay in replacing the Police National Computer and Police National Database with a combined National Law Enforcement Data Service. The new service was meant to be live last year, but will not go live until 2025-26 at earliest, while the cost has increased by 68%.

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