Department must commit a decade of work and three quarters of its IT budget to upgrading ageing kit
Almost one in three of the nearly 2,000 applications in use across the Defra Group are no longer supported by the supplier, the National Audit Office has found.
A new report from the NAO estimates that it will take 10 years to transform the software estate of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and its agencies. During the four-year period from March 2021 to 2025, the organisation is expected to spend more than three quarters of its overall IT budget on updating legacy systems.
Last year’s spending review, which covered funding for the three years beginning with the current fiscal year, provided the department with £871m to invest in digital technology and major tech programmes. But the review only granted 58% of the funding bid for by the environment department, the report said.
A collective tally of 1,962 applications are currently in use across the Defra Group, including numerous niche database programs developed by internal teams, according to the NAO. A total of 37 different applications are deployed to grant permissions or licences.
“Years of low investment in technology have resulted in a serious risk of critical service failure of cyberattack”
Some 30% of apps across the department and its arm’s-length-bodies are no longer supported by their supplier, the report found.
Many processes also continue to rely on paper forms, with only one third of citizen interactions fully digitised.
Auditors concluded that Defra “has one of the most significant legacy IT challenges of all government departments”, and that “years of low investment in technology have resulted in a serious risk of critical service failure of cyberattack”.
The report acknowledges that the department is already “making steady progress” on the delivery a programme of work to tackle its legacy software estate, beginning with a process of “stabilising existing programmes”.
In late 2021, Defra also created a Digital Prioritisation Board to help identify the areas – across both the central department and its biggest ALBs, such as Natural England and the Animal and Plant Health Agency – where upgrade work is most pressing. At the start of the 2022/23 year, the board picked 109 projects where investment would be prioritised – 97 of which will receive funding this year, including £24m that had already been spent by September.
The report recommends that the organisation should now “develop an overall strategic digital vision to apply to the whole Defra Group and put in place governance and management structures to ensure that digital and data considerations are at the heart of the business transformation process”.
The department also needs to make sure it has the necessary senior leaders in place – such as a dedicated chief data officer – to deliver its transformation objectives, as well as undertaking an “analysis of the reasons recruitment is failing” across the wider digital workforce.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Government continues to rely on many outdated IT systems at significant cost. Defra faces a particularly challenging task in replacing its legacy applications and has begun to tackle it in a structured way. The full potential of technology in improving public services and reducing cost to the taxpayer can only be accessed if this programme and others like it across government are delivered effectively.”
Meg Hillier, chair of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said that the auditors’ report “shows that Defra has done a good job, with the funds available, of fixing the most immediate issues in its IT estate”.
“However, its digital estate has suffered from years of under-investment and is creaking at the seams,” she added. “Without fundamental transformation, Defra cannot deliver the efficiencies expected of it. But it must have sustained funding to achieve this.”
Responding to the report, a Defra spokesperson said: “We have a clear strategy for expanding, enhancing and improving the resilience of our current technology and digital services through an effective and wide-ranging digital transformation plan. We are committed to improving the quality and availability of our key digital services and ensuring our systems are secure and resilient.”