UK agriculture department slammed for paper pushing despite tech splurges

Defra is counting contractors like sheep

The UK agriculture department is "working towards" getting consultant and contractor numbers down to less than a quarter of its tech and digital transformation teams and reducing contingent labor to 12 percent of headcount by the end of the financial year.

The Department for Environment, Farming & Rural Affairs (Defra) was responding to a critical report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which also disclosed that two-thirds of Defra's interactions with its 21 million customers still required paper-based forms.

"At this time, only 34 of Defra's 101 transactional services – those that allow users to exchange money for services or update official records – could be used fully online," the report said.

An earlier report from the National Audit Office found the department needed to spend £726 million on legacy tech over the four-year period from 2021-25, the second largest legacy spend requirement after the Home Office.

The PAC said that in adapting to recover from its legacy backlog, Defra is "over-reliant on contractors because it struggles to recruit and retain the people with the digital skills it needs."

The department said it was gathering evidence "to support business cases for higher starting salaries in Defra's priority 'hard to recruit' roles" in its response to the PAC. Among other measures, it had also created a "dedicated LinkedIn page for its digital team (2,500 followers currently) to post weekly jobs of the week videos, blog posts to sell benefits and what Digital, Data & Technology Services life is like for candidates to understand Defra's culture."

The department told the committee the measures increased applications from LinkedIn by 20 percent, although it didn't mention the baseline figure.

The PAC also found Defra did not have a strategy or vision needed for its long-term digital transformation and recommended it create one.

In response, the department's Executive Committee approved a long-term approach to digital and data for Defra and its biggest arm's length bodies in June 2023, "reflecting the digital needs of organisations across the group."

In November 2023, it published a digital and data transformation strategy for 2023 to 2030. It said a "data capability and transformation programme is under way, led by the Chief Data Officer, to ensure data is consistent and coherent and enables the effective sharing and use of data across Defra group."

It did not detail how many legacy applications the department continued to run or when it would migrate or retire them.

The PAC said the department was responsible for about 365 main business applications. Only 20 percent were new and directly supported by the original supplier, leaving half on extended support and 30 percent out of support and requiring "hypercare" from the Defra tech team.

"For this 80 percent of applications which are in extended support or hypercare, Defra may have to pay additional charges for support," the PAC said.

In one example revealed to the PAC in January last year, the Animal Health Agency's SAM system, which records bovine TB, had only recently been upgraded. Prior to the upgrade, vets resorted to buying old laptops on eBay as it was the only way to log into the system, Tamara Finkelstein, the department's most senior civil servant, told MPs. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like