Minister pledges Central Digital and Data Office will target ‘elephant in the room’ legacy IT

Newly created entity will also focus on data infrastructure
Photo: Guian Bolisay/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sam Trendall

25 May 2021

Addressing the significant challenges created for government by outdated IT is “a core reason the Central Digital and Data Office has been established” and will be one the organisation’s major early objectives, according to Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez.

In a speech given to the Digital Government Conference this month, Lopez described legacy IT as “the elephant in the room” of the transformation agenda.

Before the pandemic, the Government Digital Service led work to conduct a government-wide audit of legacy technology across departments. The commonly used government defitinition of legacy is any hardware, software or business process which meets one or more of the following criteria: being considered an end-of-life product; being no longer supported by the supplier; being impossible to update; being considered to be above what is considered an acceptable risk threshold; and being no longer cost effective.

The impact of such ageing systems has been starkly demonstrated by the coronavirus crisis, with the need to maintain legacy IT systems having added more than £50m to HM Revenue and Customs’ costs last year – representing 80% of the additional expense the department incurred as a result of Covid.

The tax agency was the chief beneficiary of four departments that will receive a cumulative £600m in funding set out in the November spending round.

Lopez said the cash will allow departments to address “critical risks”, but added that “this is only one step” on a much longer journey towards solving the problems posed by legacy tech.

“Addressing legacy remains a key focus,” she added. “Our next phase of work will build on what we have done so far, further identifying legacy assets and agreeing prioritisation and funding while working with departments to develop roadmaps for addressing risks. Removing legacy IT also achieves value for money by removing excessive costs to support out of date technology.”

This phase will be led by the newly created Central Digital and Data Office. The CDDO has assumed responsibility for leading the digital, data and technology function throughout government, as well as setting – and implementing – strategy across departments.

It has also taken on a number of monitoring and enforcement duties that were formerly part of GDS’s remit. This includes managing service standard assessments, assurance, and spending controls. 

GDS – from which around 100 staff have, as a result of the change in responsibilities, moved across the Cabinet Office to the CDDO – will now focus on its core activities of building and maintaining digital tools and platforms that can be used throughout government. 

“The CDDO has been established to lead the DDaT function across departments,” Lopez said. “Our mission is to improve user access and experience of government services and harness the power of data.

"As such, through this collective leadership we will use and upskill the expertise of our cross-government DDaT community and put the strategy, standards and assurance mechanisms in place to deliver the digital transformation we’ve been waiting for at scale.”

A full account

The platforms being delivered by GDS will include the new GOV.UK Accounts, a single login tool to be used across government that will replace the current patchwork of about 100 different systems – including Verify.

The new system is being “co-designed with departments and public services, and [will] be largely government-built and government-owned”, Lopez said.

She added: “With the creation of CDDO, and a reinvigorated GDS, this is a critical moment we must seize. We must take the opportunity this new focus provides and deliver the transformational agenda to meet our citizens’ expectations.

"Already we are seeing glimpses of the future today. With GOV.UK Accounts we will enable people to better understand government through a more personalised, low-friction experience, one that joins up whole journeys for services in a single space. I’m excited to see how this work will see a positive shift in the relationship citizens have with government."

As well as addressing legacy IT, a major focus area for CDDO – which is led by former Home Office digital chief Joanna Davinson – will be improving government’s use of data. 

This will necessitate improvements to both the underpinning technical infrastructure and governance systems, as well as the removal of operational and cultural barriers that currently obstruct effective use and sharing of data.

“We need to tackle the issues that are stopping us from using data on tap,” the minister said.

“Data is too often stuck in silos within departments and agencies – there are also other legislative, technical and security blockers which stop us from sharing data. Crucially, there isn’t enough of the right talent and tools in place which means that even when data is made available, we aren’t able to take full advantage of new technologies that could not only help us fix current issues, but predict and more effectively manage future challenges.”

She added: “Through the CDDO, we intend to tackle this long-standing issue head on. We will do this by establishing a common data model for government with core data standards, reference data and policies. This will enable easier and ethical sharing of data.

"We are also committed to transforming the way data is collected, managed and used across government. We intend to create a joined up and interoperable data infrastructure.”

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

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