UK government hurt by delays in legacy tech upgrades, skills shortages

Plus: Spending watchdog slams 'counter-productive staffing cuts' in technology

Tech skills shortages and reliance on legacy systems are holding back the UK government's efforts to improve efficiency at a time when public finances are under severe pressure.

Parliament's spending watchdog has issued a warning to government, saying skills shortages, including those self-inflicted through headcount cuts among tech teams, "risk costing… much more in the long run because opportunities to transform are foregone, and delays increase the risks of prolonging legacy systems".

In its report Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that the number of digital, data and technology professionals in the UK civil service amounts to around 4.5 percent of the workforce, according to government estimates. "This is less than half the number it needs when compared to an equivalent industry average of between 8 percent and 12 percent, meaning this number will need to double. However, pay constraints mean that government departments are unable to fully compete with the private sector in hard-to-recruit roles."

The PAC said some digital skills shortages are "self-inflicted through counter-productive staffing cuts."

Meanwhile, the requirement for senior generalist leaders to have a better understanding of digital business has not been formalized and the standard appointment letter for permanent secretaries makes no mention of their responsibilities for improving digital services.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, PAC chair, said: "Whitehall's digital services, far from transforming at the pace required, are capable of only piecemeal and incremental change. Departments' future-proofing abilities are hobbled by staff shortages, and a lack of support, accountability and focus from the top. In particular, a lack of cyber-security experts should send a chill down the government's spine.

"The government talks of its ambitions for digital transformation and efficiency, while actively cutting the very roles which could help achieve them. Our inquiry leaves us unconvinced that these aims will be achieved in the face of competing pressures and priorities. Digital must not be treated merely as a sideline, but must sit right at the heart of how government thinks about delivery. Without swift and substantial modernisation, opportunities to improve services for the public will continue to be lost," she said.

UK public spending is under immense pressure following the COVID pandemic, which has left services, including the country's national health service, the NHS, desperately needing funding. At the same time, government borrowing has exceeded GDP for the first time since 1961. Politically, there is little room for tax rises.

Yet the PAC report also identified a failure to tackle a gargantuan legacy tech estate as a significant barrier to improving efficiency.

The government digital unit, Central Digital and Data Office, told the PAC it had assessed 153 legacy systems across 16 departments "so far."

The government's tendency to "tweak rather than re-engineer is a lost opportunity to transform services and gain efficiency benefits. Piecemeal legacy system development introduces unwanted additional complexity and can increase costs," the report said.

"Across government, legacy systems are a key source of inefficiency and a major constraint to improving and modernising government services. Legacy systems are difficult and expensive to run and maintain and there are substantial hidden costs from additional business processes to overcome their limitations," it said.

A fundamental problem highlighted by the PAC is the government lacks the data to make the case for investing in tech workforce and system modernization as a means of reducing future costs.

"Understanding the full cost base of an existing service is key to delivering efficiency," it said.

The CDDO told the PAC that companies collect data including unit costs, time to serve and error rates. "Without good information on a service's starting point, it is very difficult to make a business case for improvement, and provide a baseline for tracking those improvements. Government has some visibility of the digital, data and technology element of a service's costs. However, it is challenging to get a full picture from the point where a user begins to interact with a service through to the final decision," the PAC said.

History warns that unless there is fundamental change in measurement of services, and investment in systems and skills, improved efficiency is far from guaranteed.

"There have been 11 government digital strategies since 1996, all seeking to address usability, efficiency and legacy systems, but examples of successful digital transformation of services at scale are rare," the report said.

Just last week, The Register revealed a 23-year-old asylum case management system at the heart of Home Office's ambition to cut its refugee claims backlog missed its end of life data, with no date for a replacement currently in place. The system has been blamed for inefficiencies, double-keying, freezing and lack of interface with other systems, although the department said improvements had been made. ®

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