Defra recruiting 1,400 policy wonks to pick up the pieces after Brexit

Prising IT systems from decades of EU lawmaking

Exclusive Defra – the UK government's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – is hiring 1,400 "business policy" folk so it can untangle itself from Europe after Brexit, according to multiple insiders.

Of those, 300 will be looking at the tech/policy side of things, including decoupling systems from decades of European legislation. The rest will be focused on policy, management and process overhead, said one insider.

A Defra spokesperson said: "Over 80 per cent of Defra's agenda is affected by the vote to leave the European Union. As a result, many roles across the Defra group are supporting EU exit-related work, either directly or indirectly. We continue to keep our recruitment plans under review."

Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee said Brexit could further exacerbate the woeful IT track record of farmers receiving rural payments from the UK government.

The system has a long and troubled history. At the end of 2015, senior government officials were hauled in front of MPs to defend their deeply "dysfunctional" and "childish" behaviour, which contributed to the botched £215m Common Agricultural Policy IT system, and up to £180m in EU fines.

Paul Waller, a former UK senior civil servant and researcher on government policy and tech at Brunel University, has previously called for policy and legislation to lead technology and not vice versa.

He said the recent drive by Defra to recruit hundreds of policy/tech people did not surprise him.

"The departments deals with a whole basket of legislation which will be directly linked to European regulation. The thing to remember is that systems only exist to administer policy and legislation."

He advised the new recruits be given a "heavy duty crash course" in all the technology and systems underpinning current legislation, before tackling the hugely complex challenge of how to migrate away from them.

"There is no point in building new systems before we know what direction we are going in," he said.

According to one source, Defra has hired the first 600 Brexit people and has vacancies for 800 more, "but I don't think they have the money for them," he said. "I can't even imagine what 1,400 people will do – they're all policy people seemingly, not delivery."

He said the the main tech bods are trying to get out of the longstanding tech contract with IBM. "There is no leadership in the agencies, and that's where the policies will have to be delivered."

Another insider was also sceptical about the department's Brexit team. "I suspect they will have to re-engage the system integrators to keep things running, and ramp up the tech compliment."

Defra recently extended its IBM and Capgemini contracts signed back in 2004 by one year to 2019 and 2018, according to a Freedom of Information response sent to The Register. The current annual value of both those contracts is £105m and £55m, respectively.

Originally, Defra had intended to break its big contract up to 25 suppliers, but has now decided on 10 deemed strategic.

Good luck to whoever wins those deals... ®

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