Addressing government legacy IT to be ‘a key focus of spending review’

Chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay claims that half of government’s IT spend goes on supporting ageing kit

Credit: Thomas Schanz/CC BY-SA 3.0

A major objective of the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will be to address issues caused by the continuing prevalence of legacy technology – which accounts for half of central government’s IT spending.

The review, which will set out detailed budgets for each department for the next three to four years, is due to take place around November. It is the first full CSR to take place in five years, with the process having been delayed by the urgency of, first, government’s Brexit preparations and, latterly, by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a speech delivered this week at an event hosted by think tank Onward, chief secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay said that “a key focus of the spending review will be addressing legacy IT”.

This issue has often not been tackled by individual departments, he said, because “the average tenure of a secretary of state is less than two years – so, it’s no surprise that issues such as legacy IT are often deprioritised in favour of the new and exciting”.

But the importance of moving away from ageing technology is demonstrated by the fact that “currently around half of central government IT spend is on servicing legacy IT”, according to Barclay.

“Such an approach is not only expensive,” he added. “It also poses cybersecurity risk, and prevents agile ways of working and cross departmental interaction. It also obstructs the use of new innovative IT solutions and the sharing of data more openly.”

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The drive to reduce use of outdated kit follows a government-wide audit of legacy IT systems embarked upon last year by the Government Digital Service.

Speaking to PublicTechnology in February this year, GDS interim director general Alison Pritchard said that her agency was working closely with the Treasury to help the use the spending review to reduce “technical debt”.

“We now have, collectively, a much better handle on the scale of the problem,” she said. “We want to shape the collective narrative that allows us to make sure that we’re making one singular argument with Treasury colleagues around the need for addressing legacy.”

Prichard added: “Departments will have some very difficult decisions to take. But what we can’t afford is for legacy to not be addressed. We will have a role in working with departments and Treasury colleagues to ensure that Spending Review bids reflect that.

GDS’s definition of legacy technology encompasses any hardware, software or business process that meets one or more of the following criteria: is considered an end-of-life product; is no longer supported by the supplier; is impossible to update; is “above the acceptable risk threshold”; and is no longer cost-effective.

The digital agency has indicated that it intends to update the government spending controls for which it holds responsibility to incorporate measures that ensure department’s plans do not create further technical debt.

Data base
In his speech this week, Barclay said targeting legacy IT would support better use of data – which he picked out as one of three overarching objectives of the spending review.

He claimed that government has “too often been behind the curve when it comes to obtaining, analysing, and enabling open access to data”. 

But the response to coronavirus has demonstrated government’s ability to work together and share information across departmental boundaries in supported of shared objectives. The National Shielding Programme was cited by Barclay as a good example of this. 

He said: “By government departments coordinating and sharing data, the most vulnerable in our society were able to access the food and medicine they needed in a time of national crisis.”

“Data also drives better government decision making,” Barclay added. “In a world of imperfect information, we can never perfectly predict outcomes upfront, but what we can do is improve the decisions we make. Yet it remains the case that decisions in government still rely heavily on spreadsheets from departments, rather than data directly sourced in real time.”

The second main focus area of the CSR will be to “tie expenditure and performance far more closely together”.

This will entail judging the efficacy of spending decisions not in purely financial terms, but in the outcomes ultimately experienced by citizens, such as “the state of local roads, the time taken to get a hospital appointment, [and] how safe the neighbourhood feels”.

“If funding decisions are to improve over time, we in the Treasury need to have clearer sight of both the intended outcomes and subsequently evaluation of their delivery,” he said. “We’ll be publishing details on these outcomes at the Spending Review, thereby setting the priorities across government for the remainder of this parliament.”

In adopting this approach, Barclay claimed the government would be taking a leaf out of the book of “Silicon Valley”.

“For decades, the most innovative companies have made a habit of setting clear objectives and then relentlessly tracking, measuring and evaluating the outcomes of their work,” he said.

“It remains the case that decisions in government still rely heavily on spreadsheets from departments, rather than data directly sourced in real time”
Steve Barclay

A key element of improving the ability to measure outcomes would be “bridging the divide” between policy and delivery professionals, as well as encouraging departments to break out of siloed ways of working.

The second focus area picked out by Barclay was “speed”. His ambitions in this area involve not just increasing the pace with which projects are delivered, but ensuring the necessary upfront rigour that allows work to be conducted rapidly.

“Speed is a hallmark of the digital era. Over half of mobile internet users will leave a site that takes longer than three seconds to load,” he said. “When it comes to infrastructure we must not only foster a culture of pace, agility, and strong leadership. We must also learn from the work of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the National Audit Office. Programmes need to start with robust goals and we have to resist the temptation to repeatedly change plans.

“Our maxim should be measure twice and cut once.”


Sam Trendall

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