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Government must prioritise replacement of legacy IT, MPs told

Science and Technology Committee inquiry into digital government told that Treasury needs to offer funding in next spending review to eliminate ageing technology in Whitehall

Plans to eliminate ageing legacy IT systems across government will be critical in the next spending review and need to be given priority – even though there are no specific standards on how this should be handled or mandates to enforce that modernisation be carried out, government officials say.

The Government Cybersecurity Group is working in conjunction with the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the National Cyber Security Centre to help departments find the investment necessary to address their legacy technology as part of the next spending round, which is due to be completed later this year.

“[Legacy] costs more and it is more difficult to secure,” said Kevin Cunnington, director general at GDS, yesterday (4 March 2019), at a Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry, where ministers and digital leaders in government were asked to give evidence on digital transformation across the public sector.

Oliver Dowden, implementation minister at the Cabinet Office, said at the session that “the simpler bit” of government digitisation has largely been done – meaning front-end modernisation – but the current challenge is around end-to-end digitisation.

Dowden added that some 86 key strategic projects where systems need to go fully digital have been identified.

“If the Treasury decided it wanted to prioritise reforming legacy systems, then GDS could give advice and work with the Treasury to identify where we could best allocate those funds,” said Dowden.

“As budgets permit, we will seek to replace [legacy] with up-to-date systems, but in the meantime, as we continue with them, we need to make sure those systems are resilient and secure,” he added.

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Dowden pointed out that GDS is “actively engaging” with the Treasury to understand how furthering transformation through emerging technologies and greater use of automation could support the aim of better service delivery to citizens. But it’s all about getting the best value:

“Part of that is likely to be through changing legacy systems, but, equally, it is possible that efficiency can be driven through existing systems, so it’s all down to a cost-benefit analysis to find out what value we will get from additional funding,” the minister said. Such arguments are expected to be a part of spending review bids which will then be considered by the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

Dowden was questioned by MPs on whether there is a cross-departmental audit or a need to consider a power to mandate that departments take the necessary action around phasing out legacy. He said responsibility for individual systems sits within departments. Cunnington admitted there are no specific timeframes around the elimination of legacy IT within government.

Significant parts of the technology underpinning delivery at large public sector bodies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), are still operating via 30-year old systems. But according to DWP’s interim chief digital and information officer, Simon McKinnon, such legacy IT is incrementally moving towards digitisation, with new systems based on key use cases running in parallel to legacy by the end of 2019.

An example of work done so far, cited by McKinnon during the committee session, is the state pension system, where updates have been recently introduced to allow citizens to start the process of claiming their pension and checking payments online, with 12.5 million statement views since the introduction of the service.

“It's horses for courses,” he said. “In some situations, we will increment away from [legacy systems]. In others, we will move cases incrementally, and in others, such as Universal Credit, we will build a brand new solution which will remove the need for legacy.”

“But legacy systems are critical to what we deliver and the move away from them has to be done carefully. This is going to take many years, but our intention is to move away from legacy.”

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