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Defra’s legacy IT unsupported and ill-equipped for digital services

A Public Accounts Committee report has found many applications are based on legacy IT and paper-basd systems, holding back digitisation

A report from the Public Accounts Committee has warned that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is at risk of wasting money on digital services due to its legacy IT.

The report states that some decisions about digital services need to be taken without delay, but Defra has yet to take decisions on business transformation. Without clarity on what the transformed Defra will look like, it’s difficult for its digital specialists to prepare, the authors of the PAC report warned.

It found that of Defra’s 12 systems with the highest volume of public or business users, two are a mixture of modern and legacy systems and one is an entirely legacy system.

As such, Defra may have to pay additional charges for updates, or choose to run the applications completely unsupported, which increases the risk of failure or cyber attacks. According to the PAC, legacy problems have built up in systems related to older legislation, and it has tended to focus resources on building IT systems to address newer legislation such as the Future Farming and Countryside programme.

Defra told the PAC it had 365 larger legacy applications, of which 20% were new and directly supported by the original supplier and 50% were in extended support, where the department paid for an extension to the original contract for the supplier to continue to provide support. The PAC said it was told by Defra that the remaining 30% of legacy applications were in hypercare, supported either through its internal digital team or by suppliers.

The PAC said Defra has not given enough attention to the impact of poor digital services on its users. In one example given in the PAC report, until recently, vets had to buy old laptops on eBay to be able to run the software for recording bovine tuberculosis test results because the legacy application was unsupported on newer operating systems.

The PAC found that many of Defra’s legacy systems still rely heavily on paper forms or documents, and it handles around 14 million transactions each year. While Defra intends to reduce its reliance on paper forms, the PAC said it is unable to say when this will happen.

Read more about Defra’s IT

  • Some 30% of Defra’s applications are currently unsupported, magnifying cyber risk as the government department struggles to make progress on a digital transformation programme.
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues its work to help government departments clean up their IT supply chains by creating a ‘cloud sustainability’ workstream.

According to the authors of the PAC report, there are barriers to increasing the use of digital-based applications and processes which Defra does not yet fully understand. For example, it does not measure the costs to its customers of its unmodernised digital services, but is now attempting to include these in business cases for specific changes.

Defra has told the PAC its IT strategy is to stabilise legacy applications to reduce the risks of cyber attack or operational failure, as well as developing and implementing the IT systems needed for EU Exit. This involves migrating workloads from older datacentres to the cloud.

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