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

Report identifies continued prevalence of ageing tech as one of the major challenges facing the civil service’s digital ambitions
Ayebare Innocent/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sam Trendall

28 Jul 2021

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 represented 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 claimed 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.

“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 must 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 noted 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 identified “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 characterised 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.”

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology,  where a version of this story first appeared.

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