Defra preps ‘manual workarounds’ for major IT projects amid fears of no-deal Brexit

Department warns that, if the UK exits the EU without a trade deal, it may need to make some ‘clunky fixes’ to deliver necessary IT systems

Credit: Matt Faber/PA Archive/PA Images

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is preparing “manual workarounds” and “clunky fixes” for its IT systems in the event that it has to cope with a no-deal Brexit.

Defra is currently working on 43 Brexit-related projects, 20 of which have an IT component. Four of these would require the department to build new IT platforms if the UK exits the EU without any form of trade deal with Europe. 

According to new report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee, the “two most significant” projects are the delivery of an import control system for animals and related products, and the work to implement a platform for registering and authorising new chemical products.

Defra has already “commenced the build process” for both these projects, and plans to undertake user testing later this year. But, if the projects encounter unanticipated setbacks, the department has already considered how it could make use of paper-based processes and other stopgap measures.

The PAC report said: “Defra also told us that, in the event of delays to these builds, it has built fall-back positions into its plans to be ready for a no-deal scenario in March 2019, which might include using some ‘manual workarounds’. The department acknowledged that a no-deal scenario would result in some ‘clunky fixes’, and some functions would not be performed ‘as slickly as they are at the moment’.”

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Defra’s comments were made as part of evidence given to the committee on 7 March 2018 – shortly before the publication of the government’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement, which includes plans for a transition period lasting until 31 December 2020. 

In its evidence, Defra said that such a transition period “would increase its confidence in its ability to deliver by enabling it to make changes over a longer time period, as well as providing more time to prepare businesses and people for the changes that would take place”, the report indicated.

Nevertheless, PAC retains concerns about Defra’s ability to successfully deliver its IT workstreams. The committee pointed to difficulties experienced during the department’s rollout of a digital system for delivering payments to farmers under the government’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Last year, the committee undertook an inquiry into this project examining how “serious failings” saw the online application tool taken down in March 2015 and replaced by a paper-based process. 

In the newly published report, PAC said: “Given its poor track record on IT delivery, Defra must ensure it has the necessary resources in place to complete its IT programmes on time and avoid costly and embarrassing contingencies involving manual completion and submission of forms.”

The demands of its Brexit-related work were cited by Defra as a key reason behind the recent decision to extend the department’s long-term engagement with IBM by a further 17 months. The IT vendor has worked with Defra since 2004, and is now under contract until 2021. The recent extension cost the government £30m, taking the total lifetime worth of the deal from £1.445bn to £1.475bn.

The department’s ongoing UnITy project is dedicated to disaggregating the IBM contract, as well as the Environment Agency’s long-term engagement with Capgemini. 

The contract notice announcing the extension of the IBM deal pointed to the difficulty of transferring services from the company to other suppliers while Defra is focused on the “substantial application development and maintenance services required as a result of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union”.

PublicTechnology had contacted Defra requesting comment and was awaiting response at time of going to press.


Sam Trendall

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