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'Red-rated' legacy IT gets refresh in UK as US battles theirs with bills

Strategy says 50 of the most frequently used digital services will be upgraded at the same time

The UK government has committed to ending its reliance on legacy applications, or at least those it deems the highest priority, by 2025.

In a policy paper released yesterday, the Central Digital & Data Office (CDDO) said the costly issue of technical debt had been allowed to build up over multiple financial cycles and was now a barrier to the delivery of policy and services.

In the US, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the government spent over $100bn in fiscal 2021 on IT.

Most of it was for operating and maintaining existing tech, including legacy systems. The GAO analyzed 65 federal legacy systems, and identified the country's Social Security Administration (SSA) as having one of the 10 "most critical" high risk legacy systems – and was forced had to rehire retired employees to maintain SSA's COBOL systems in 2016.

The systems were eight to 51 years old, with three agencies – the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Transportation – having no documented plans to modernize.

A bipartisan effort earlier this year from US senators Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) is attempting to get the US to bring some transparency to its own legacy goverment IT problem with the Legacy IT Reduction Act of 2022 [PDF].

The bill is currently before Congress after being introduced to the Senate in March 2022.

Very experienced CIOs sometimes...aren't listened to because the non-digital leader can't really understand...what the CIO might be telling them about some of the risks and complexity involved

The UK government, meanwhile, is using the current overhaul to judge which chunks of the technology estate are set for a refresh and which will be left to soldier on.

Under the policy's "Mission Four: Efficient, Secure and Sustainable Technology," the CDDO said: "All 'red-rated' legacy systems identified through an agreed cross-government framework will have an agreed remediation plan in place."

We asked the Cabinet Office, which oversees the CDDO, how applications and infrastructure will be red rated. There is likely to be no shortage of candidates.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak last month blamed legacy IT for his decision not to increase social security payments as inflation hits the highest rate in 30 years.

Another contender is HMRC's Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system, which originated in 1994 but had its life extended when the IBM system intended replace it was delayed. The system is set to retire in 2023, so may be outside the scope of the CDDO program.

Last year a report by the National Audit Office found that a legacy ICL-era mainframe, which dates back to the 1980s, was one of the causes behind the failure to pay more than £1 billion ($1.25 billion) in state pensions.

In March, Yvonne Gallagher, digital director of the public spending watchdog, said problems created by a lack of digital knowledge in senior management extended to managing and migrating from legacy systems. "It means that whilst we have in government a lot of very experienced CIOs, sometimes they just aren't listened to because the non-digital leader can't really understand or fathom what it is that the CIO might be telling them about some of the risks and complexity involved," Gallagher said.

The new CDDO strategy promises that 50 of the most frequently used digital government services will be upgraded by 2025. It said that more than 6,500 senior civil servants would be upskilled through digital boot camps. The strategy would save more than £1 billion ($1.25 billion) by updating old tech and streamlining processes, it said.

Minister Heather Wheeler, Parliamentary undersecretary in the Cabinet Office, said: "This new strategy will put us in lockstep with the private sector, transforming the delivery of key services that people rely on so that they are simpler and faster to use while also cutting costs."

According to Organising for Digital Delivery, an independent report written by the Digital Economy Council last summer, the UK spends half of its $5.832 billion (£4.7 billion) IT spend on "keep the lights on activities" on "outdated systems". ®

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