Whitehall IT chiefs are not doing enough to address the UK government's creaking IT legacy systems, some of which are 30 years old, former government CIO Andy Nelson has warned.
Speaking to El Reg, he said this problem is not currently seen as a business priority.
Nelson was previously government CIO until the role was axed in 2013 in favour of chief technology officers — deemed to better reflect digital skills.
He became CIO at the department for Work and Pensions in 2014, but quit the role after just a year. He is now an associate at technology consultancy Kemp Little Consulting.
"It’s great to build digital and go online — but the DWP and HMRC have some systems that have been sitting there for 30 years, [and so] the question is will we be able to turn them off?"
He said: "Action has to be taken as there will come a time when the systems are no longer reliable, as many of them rely on old and out-of-date software and all the knowledge of how they work will have retired."
An urgent plan is needed to replace or extend their lives until new systems naturally replace them, he said.
Speaking about the current moves to reform government IT, Nelson was positive about efforts to broaden the amount of suppliers, and gain more ownership of IT architecture.
"There have been real savings to help government get a better grip on suppliers," he said. "Too much had been outsourced."
However, he was sceptical of the approach by the Government Digital Service to build everything in-house, particular in regard to creating re-usable IT 'platforms'. "The big challenge is how do you get this big beast called government to do common things and how do you get different organisations to come to the table," he said.
"If the model is to employ a load of open source coders and rewrite everything themselves: I’m sorry that won’t work. We need more pragmatic answers here."
Nelson was also unconvinced by the GDS exemplar programme designed to showcase its digital services transformation. "At this point they are online forms and not much else," he said. "The digital infrastructure has only scratched the surface so far."
On the question of the DWP's disastrous Universal Credit programme, he said conceptually the idea of resetting the project was the right thing to do, but added the question is to ask how well the policy is working, rather than the technology.
He also said the government must be realistic about its approach to using SMEs — some of which aren't going to be able to plug into large mission-critical government contracts.
With regards to the tower model contract approach, designed to break up large deals into smaller chunks, he said it was still early days to judge its success.
"I do not think there is anything fundamentally wrong with the idea but there are many ways to implement it, largely driven by scale of organisation and level of internal capability." ®