For individuals in the UK, replacing outdated personal technology is a relatively easy thing to do. Replacing a mobile phone or moving to voice activated speakers is straightforward and simple. Citizens now expect a similar experience from the services they consume from government. However, for government departments to digitally transform systems while continuing to support the current ones is a complex task. According to a December 2021 report from Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, the vital systems that manage the UK’s borders and paying state pensions are still being run on decades-old legacy technology. The use of ageing technologies that software suppliers stopped supporting long ago hugely increases the risk of failure and downtime. This leads to services that are no longer agile, are costly and no longer meet the requirements of the citizen. To boot legacy technology requires huge amounts of maintenance and in many cases poses cyber security risks.
This has not gone unnoticed, with a National Audit Office report published in July last year stated that government digital programmes have shown “a consistent pattern of underperformance” over quarter of a century. The report identified legacy systems as one of six key areas of concern. Furthermore in 2021, the prime minister and the cabinet secretary signed a pledge to “introduce mandatory reporting of the costs and risks of outdated IT systems”. Government departments need to take action.
In a recent panel discussion run by government IT supplier Leidos, its UK civil division’s head of business development Roz Barrance described this challenge: “Systems have been built up over many years to support changing legislation and urgent policy requirements. They contain workarounds and temporary solutions, some many years old that are not sustainable. All these changes over time have added layer upon layer of complexity, risk and cost.”
A report published last July by independent advisory committee Digital Economy Council said that in 2019 £2.3bn went on maintaining legacy technology, half of the government’s spending on digital technology that year. November 2021’s comprehensive spending review included £2.6bn to update old technology and tackle cybersecurity risks over three years.
Barrance said that optimising legacy systems requires digital transformation to the new while keeping the lights on of the existing ones. This puts conflicting pressure on the people that understand and support the systems today as they are asked to input into the new. “How do we actually go about operationally delivering this?” she asked participants in the discussion.
There is no greater asset than people
During the panel discussion, Leidos’ chief architect Mark Watson spoke about the importance of people. He said it is very important to recognise that those in the business today with the technical knowledge of the ageing systems are one of the top assets available and unpicking the existing system to understand how it can be transformed cannot be done without deep understanding gained over many years. Organisations must recognise this and provide their staff with a realistic view of the transformation process, rather than just selling benefits, Watson said, adding that these people will become stretched as they maintain the existing and help out on the new. But there are ways to motivate such as including them in the decision-making process, giving ownership of elements and providing training to carry on and support the new. It is a very hard balancing act but it is key to success, he added.
It is vital that technology change is understood and shaped by the people that use it, Watson added, as when users are left out of decision-making and handed a new system often adoption of the system can be slow as issues appear with usability or ineffective workflows. “They know how to do their job and they know how to design a system that will make them more effective,” said Watson. “Standing up user groups where they have a voice and input to future systems is a very effective way of bringing users on the journey with the business.”
One of Leidos’ government customers supports people facing or going through bankruptcy. Working with its technical and user communities the company was able to bring the organisation on the journey of digital transformation where its input was invaluable and the new system was quickly adopted with minimal teething issues. The organisation successfully redesigned workflows to allow bankruptcy applications to be dealt with in an average of 1.4 days, down from 10. The benefit to people facing the uncertainty of bankruptcy is immeasurable and employee engagement and satisfaction went up.
Watson added that large government systems are complex and the services they provide can be life-preserving. But digital transformation can be agile and ongoing and it is important to realise that the services an organisation needs to deliver now will not be the same in two or three years.
He said that agile development has other benefits for legacy transformation work, such as bringing in new elements as soon as they are ready which enables pieces of the existing IT estate to be turned off saving cost, reducing risk and freeing up the workforce to accelerate the transformation, meaning it becomes a snowball. “It’s my experience that 99% of organisations that switch from waterfall to agile never want to go back,” he said.
“We can’t move forward with digital transformation without people, whether it’s the people that are consuming services, those involved in delivering the legacy today, or those that are involved in the future,” summed up Barrance. “And I think it’s also about recognising that no one person has all of the answers. Collaboration and communication are key to success."