Departmental collaboration hampered by legacy tech, data challenges and lack of joint funding bids, senior officials warn

With the current spending review term of three years nearing its conclusion, Whitehall leaders have advised MPs that organisational cooperation should begin with business plans and bids for Treasury support

Departments’ ability to collaborate across organisational boundaries continues to be hampered by issues including legacy IT systems and challenges in making the most of data, senior officials have claimed.

In a recent evidence session before the Public Accounts Committee, which is running an inquiry into cross-government working, MPs were also told that departments are failing to take advantage of opportunities to make joint funding bids for spending reviews.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing rollout of a major new shared services plan, Nathan Moores, the Cabinet Office’s shared services strategy director, told the committee that tech and data infrastructure challenges continue to present something of a barrier to collaboration.

“In the landscape of the back office across government, across the 18 departments plus arm’s-length bodies, there are about 205 core systems that run HR, finance and payroll. To compound that problem, there are 655 further systems around those core systems,” he said. “The landscape of legacy IT debt, which we have collectively inherited, has served a purpose to get us this far, but these systems are coming to the end of their commercial life and end of support.”

There is also a lack of analytical experts with the evaluation skills to make full use of data, according to Catherine Hutchinson, head of the Evaluation Task Force, a joint Cabinet Office and HM Treasury Hutchinson. She said work is ongoing to address this by “creating an evaluation academy that trains trainers in each department to upskill people so we can make sure that the data that departments have is utilised most effectively”.

Meanwhile, Cat Little, head of the government finance function and second permanent secretary to the Treasury, has “it is really disappointing that we do not have that many” bids for financing that are jointly created and submitted by more than one agency.

The government received 28 joint funding bids in the 2021 Spending Review,  “despite us doing more guidance and top-down training”, she added.

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More than 1,000 finance and policy officials have been given training in how to do joint bids, but Little said the government is “going to have to do even more going into the next spending review to extol the benefits”. Little commented that the government also needs to do “more top-down requests for bids”.

She also told the committee that “there are leadership, culture, performance management and money benefits” from departments working more closely together. “Politicians also have quite an important role to play because, in my experience, we serve the government, ultimately, and if the government say, “We want this cross-cutting outcome and we want it to be a priority”, then, of course, that is what is incentivising senior officials to deliver,” Little said.

In the run-up to the comprehensive review, the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office advised the Treasury with the aim of ensuring that efforts to tackle legacy IT and deliver transformation objectives were adequately supported. The review ultimately committed a cumulative tally of £2.6bn to address legacy and combat cyber risks.

Cabinet Office perm sec Sir Alex Chisholm, who also appeared before the committee at the hearing held last month, spoke about the “holy grail” of cross-government working and warned that financial pressures will require innovation and proper evaluation.

“There is a little bit of a business-as-usual status quo bias at work in the business of government,” he said. “That bias is going to be challenged by the financial pressures that are bearing on all mature democracies at the moment, with more and more demand for services without an infinite expansion of either tax or debt.”

Chisholm commented: “That will cause people to think, “If I want to continue to provide that service in future to a higher or better standard, I am going to need to innovate”, and innovation requires organised trial of different alternative approaches being properly, robustly evaluated.” He also addressed the issue of churn: “You want to have people stay for a period of time, to build up expertise and to see things through.”

Jonathan Owen and PublicTechnology staff

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