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Brexit is coming, but is the government technologically ready?

Brexit requires huge IT and technology changes across government, but as departments seem to be struggling to get to grips with the workload, Computer Weekly looks at how preparations are going

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Will government IT be ready for Brexit?

With less than a year to go until the UK leaves the EU, departments should be well on their way to ensuring they have the right IT systems, skills and plans in place to ensure a smooth transition to a post-Brexit world, but is this really the case?

From a technology perspective, Brexit is one of the largest government IT programmes ever to get off the ground. It requires huge changes, a myriad of new systems, and strong (and stable) leadership. The only issue is, the government does not have a great track record when it comes to such projects, and it has a lot to deliver.

There is the challenge of the UK– Ireland border, HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) customs declaration service, and the fact that 30 of the 85 IT systems used at the border needing to be replaced, or changed – just to mention a few.

However, as Government Digital Service’s (GDS) digital transformation director Brigid McBride pointed out earlier this year, while Brexit does bring challenges, it also brings huge opportunities for government to learn how to speed up and scale digital transformation.  

Defra and its “impossible challenges”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) probably faces the lion’s share of Brexit IT projects, with half of its Brexit workstreams involving technology.

Most of Defra’s systems are heavily based around EU policy. One example is customs clearance of imports of animals and animal products, which is currently managed through the EU’s Trade, Control and Expert System, meaning the department will need its own version post-Brexit. 

Despite the work required, Defra has time and time again been critisised for not taking the workload seriously enough.

A Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published on 4 May 2018, said that the department’s “poor track record on IT delivery” means it’s imperative that the department ensures it has the necessary resources in place to complete its IT programmes on time “and avoid costly and embarrassing contingencies involving manual completion and submission of forms”.

“Almost half of Defra’s workstreams have an IT element, and many of these are still at an early stage of development,” the PAC said, adding that there are “substantial risks”, such as disruption to the country’s agriculture and food industries, should the IT not be ready on time. PAC chair Meg Hillier said this was one of many "impossible challenges" the department faces. 

The department has, however, according to its permanent secretary Clare Moriarty, recruited “at least 100 people” into its digital, data and technology service, and is “confident it can work” to the timescales needed.

Skills needed

Defra isn’t the only government department facing scrutiny and criticism for its apparent reluctance to take IT seriously.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has not even begun procuring any of its potential 12 new digital systems needed for Brexit, according to the PAC. 

BEIS, it seems, is not particularly concerned about this, and told the PAC it is “very confident” it could buy and test the systems by 29 March 2019 – the date the UK officially leaves the EU.

Despite BEIS insisting it hasn’t struggled to recruit the right people and skills despite the skills shortage, it’s impossible to get away from the skills issue.

Time and time again, this pops up as a key problem with government IT programmes, and Brexit isn’t any different. The scale of work required is substantial, and despite the two-year transition period once the UK leaves the EU, there is a hard deadline to hit here.  

It should be noted that the lack of progress is not just the department’s fault. A lot of the IT work at Defra, for instance, depends on policy that has yet to be developed, and crucially, on funding approvals from HM Treasury, which has taken a lot of time. There is also the issue of planning for a no-deal scenario, which significantly impacts the work departments can realistically do.

Brexit work causes delays

Over at HMRC, the department is going full steam ahead, working hard to ensure its customs declaration service (CDS)  – arguably one of the most important systems to have in place post-Brexit – is ready on time.

CDS is intended to replace the current Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (Chief) system for handling freight from outside the European Union (EU). After Brexit, HMRC is expecting to see an increase in customs declarations from the current 60 million a year to 255 million – way beyond what the current Chief system can handle.

Concerns have been rife that the system won’t be ready for Brexit, or able to cope with the huge number of transactions. But although the department has said it can’t 100% guarantee the system will be ready on time, HMRC is on track to deliver the system by the deadline.

The issue at HMRC is therefore (hopefully) not delivering on time, but rather the fact that other technology projects have been put on the backburner.

In January 2018, the PAC expressed concerns HMRC was dangerously overstretched through a combination of 15 major transformation programmes, including CDS. The department’s chief executive Jon Thompson subsequently confirmed there would be changes to a “number of projects”, which either would be delayed or stopped.

On 30 April, Thompson told the PAC that these projects includes its flagship Making Tax Digital project, as it’s decided to “not make tax credits an online service if you’re not a new tax-credit claimant, and online personal tax accounts won’t have any new services added”. 

Technology struggles

While technology plays a huge part in solving various Brexit challenges, it’s not always the holy grail.

When discussing Brexit, it’s impossible to get away from the post-Brexit UK-Ireland border, and the challenges it brings. This, however, is one conundrum technology might not be able to solve, despite how much the government wants it to.

Both countries desperately want to avoid a hard border when the UK leaves the EU Single Market and the Customs Union, but no solution has yet been found.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said that from the evidence it has seen, technology can assist in border management, but “is best seen as an aid to, rather than a substitute for, manual, visible and physical border management”.

Despite this, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, has previously said he is “confident that ‘the most up-to-date technology’ can ensure the border remains non-visible and as light-touch as it is today”.

Davis told the House of Commons last week (4 May) that he maintains the problem will be solved:

“We have said categorically that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic,” he said. “I have always said that the best solution to the Northern Ireland border issue will be reached through the deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, recognising the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

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Technology is also proving to be an issue at the Home Office, which came under severe criticism over its mobile app for EU nationals applying for settled status in the UK post-Brexit

The app, it emerged, only works on Android devices, as Apple does not allow third-party developers to access the near-field communication (NFC) capabilities needed to scan the passport chips. The project, some said, is a prime example of how the government struggles with getting IT right.

These are only some of many challenges government faces over the next year, but most departments seem very unconcerned with the potential consequences of not delivering on time. Does that mean the concerns, criticisms and worries are unfounded, or is the government simply pulling the wool over its own eyes? The deadline of 29 March 2019 is coming, and the workload is only increasing. 

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