Legacy IT issues impacted government decision-making during Covid-19, says PAC

The government’s ability to make well-informed decisions during the pandemic has been ‘hampered’ by data and legacy IT issues, Public Accounts Committee report finds

The slow progress in tackling legacy IT and data issues in government has had a clear impact on decision-making during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In its report on initial lessons from the government’s response to the pandemic, the committee said the crisis had highlighted the need for high-quality data and IT.

“Government’s ability to make well-informed decisions and address issues as they arise during the pandemic has been hampered by slow progress in addressing longstanding issues with data and legacy IT,” the report said.

We have repeatedly highlighted longstanding data issues within government, including the lack of data standards, ageing IT systems, fragmented leadership, and a culture that does not support sharing data across departmental boundaries. These issues came to a head during the pandemic.”

It highlighted the issues with missing contact details within NHS patient records as an example, where during the government’s shielding programme for those classed as extremely vulnerable, 375,000 vulnerable people could not be followed up by phone because contact details were not available in their records.

“The pandemic has again highlighted the role of high-quality data in enabling effective service delivery, monitoring and improvement,” the report said.  

“Local authorities, which were passed the details of individuals who could not be reached, struggled with inaccurate contact information. Difficulties sharing data also hindered local authorities’ ability to understand and manage outbreaks.

“Similarly, local government lacked access to key information from NHS Test and Trace and public health officials lacked timely information on tests conducted in privately-run sites, hindering their ability to understand and manage outbreaks within their communities.”

The report added: “HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office recognise that a key lesson from the pandemic has been the need to improve the quality of data available and assert that. Investing in data and dealing with legacy IT issues is high on their priority list.”

HM Revenue and Customs is also creating a “tell-us-once” service for contact detail changes as part of its Making Tax Digital programme, the report noted.

The PAC has asked the government to respond to the report, setting out how the need to address data and IT legacy issues will be prioritised in bids for the next spending review.

The PAC report follows a National Audit Office report in May 2021, which found that the pandemic had “laid bare” legacy IT issues in government.

The NAO report said data limitations had also affected the government’s ability to assess the effectiveness and value for money of some of the programmes.

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