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Government digital chief outlines extent of legacy IT challenge

Central Digital and Data Office director Joanna Davinson says ageing IT is holding back digital transformation

As the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) progresses with its vision to evolve the UK government’s digital, data and technology (DDaT) function, its leader said tackling legacy would be key to achieving digital transformation ambitions across central government.

The CDDO was set up in January 2021 to lead the DDaT function across departments and strengthen its collective leadership, in collaboration with senior IT decision-makers across government. The goals of the new office are directly related to digital and technology transformation, particularly in relation to improving user access and experience of government services and harnessing the use of data.

Working alongside the Government Digital Service (GDS), the brief at the CDDO also includes monitoring and assessing the delivery of major digital and data programmes across government, looking at issues such as systems resilience and interoperability.

At an event promoted by industry association TechUK on 22 September, CDDO executive director Joanna Davinson talked about the office’s broad agenda, which has the delivery of public services as one of its key pillars.

“It all starts with how to ensure we are actually serving the general public, whether that’s individual citizens or businesses or others that interact with government,” she said.

“We have to recognise that in a digital world, there’s no reason why we should expect people to understand how the government is structured. What matters is that people can access the services they need when they need them,” Davinson added. “That takes us into a whole world of how we genuinely measure, test and challenge ourselves to make our services as usable as possible.”

“In a digital world, there’s no reason why we should expect people to understand how the government is structured. What matters is that people can access the services they need when they need them”

Joanna Davinson, Central Digital and Data Office

While recognising that delivery of these services is up to departments, the CDDO leader noted that the government needed to be “much more consistent” in relation to providing an end-to-end user experience. “That’s challenging, [because] the government is very, very federated,” Davinson said. “We’re doing a number of things on that, and it’s not going to change overnight.”

Commenting about a case whereby a citizen told her about her inconvenience of having to fill out a vast amount of paper forms to apply for UK citizenship and her frustration about why such processes were not yet available online, Davinson said the government needed to get “much better” at how it sets the standards that lead to interoperability in digital and data.

“We’ve got a mission to set appropriate data standards and work across departments to work out how we can share data more effectively,” she noted. According to the CDDO head, evolving on that front depends on addressing the issues caused by the ageing IT infrastructure across government.

“We still have a lot of legacy, [as well as] a lot of risk in our legacy platforms. But we’ve got a fabulous opportunity as well, in terms of moving more [applications] into the cloud, doing that in a way that enables us to continue to be interoperable and to actually know where our data is,” Davinson pointed out, adding that she is often quizzed about this.

“Increasingly, that is something that I get challenged on by ministers in terms of [whether] we really understand where our data is and have we really managed the risk,” she noted.

Tackling the issue of legacy IT

According to Davinson, there are opportunities around addressing legacy systems despite the cost, and the challenges in doing so in a scenario of cost containment in the public sector.

“If we reduce the legacy, we reduce not only the risk, but also the costs on the national estate, and we open up flexibility and opportunities,” she said. “But it’s challenging to make some of those business cases in the context of [having] a tight fiscal envelope and, and also a lot of legacy, which we can’t ignore,” she noted.

Despite the complexities around addressing legacy, the Davinson noted her team was “putting a lot of focus and emphasis” on the issue, with initiatives geared towards driving “more transparency and visibility”, and a common understanding of the status of the government’s ageing infrastructure.

According to Davinson, larger government departments made “a lot of progress” over the past couple of years in relation to legacy, but there is some way to go. “That sort of inventory of what was out there just wasn’t [available],” she said, adding that this issue will not go away in the short term.

“I think it is important that we recognise that [legacy IT] is not going to get fixed overnight. This is a two to three spending review cycle problem to work through,” she noted. “We’ve also got to be a bit more thoughtful about how we triage and focus on the things that need fixing now, because not all legacy is bad – some of it operates or functions.”

While stressing the need to address old technology so government organisations can reap the benefits of end-to-end services and sharing data, Davinson noted that delivery would always be up to the departments.

“To a certain extent, I’d like to leave departments with as much flexibility as possible to do what they need to do,” she said. “I don’t think I would see us mandating from the centre that you must use this technology, and not that technology.”

An example of the government's ageing IT challenge was illustrated by a National Audit Office report released on the same day as Davinson was speaking, which revealed that legacy systems were the root cause of human error that resulted in up to 134,000 state pensions being underpaid by more than £1bn by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Developing digital and data skills

At the TechUK event, Davinson also talked about the CDDO’s capability strategy, which has two dimensions: one relates to upskilling the general civil service to understand the demands of data and digital. “As a leader in any organisation these days you really have to understand digital and data and how it can help you deliver the services that you’re offering to your citizens. We’re working on how we do that,” she said.

In addition, the CDDO is also working on developing a clear standard for career paths, or frameworks that enable the government to recruit and retain DDaT professionals, and that the public sector attracts the right kind of the skills that it needs.

Current priorities for Davinson also include work on broader policies and ways of working to support digital ways of working and finding ways to engage with the tech sector to advance her overall strategy, in particular when it comes to her interoperability goals.

“As a leader these days you really have to understand digital and data and how it can help you deliver the services that you’re offering to your citizens. We’re working on how we do that”
Joanna Davinson, CDDO

Moreover, the CDDO chief said a digital and data support board for the civil service had been established. This is a permanent secretary-level  board through which conversations will be held about data and digital issues. “My ambition for that group is to use it to nail down the things we have to do consistently and together,” she pointed out.

Above all, Davinson stressed that she was “really keen” that a large part of what CDDO does is around building a community. “Chief technology officers and chief data officers are generally very sensible people who will come together and create that sense of cross-government strategy. It’s really important that this is a co-creation, a coalition of the willing: I don’t think top-down mandates particularly work.”

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