A complete and co-ordinated overhaul of the IT systems at Defra is needed, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have concluded in a new report. The systems currently in use are in many cases so old that they are at constant risk of failure or cyber attack.
“Defra’s IT systems are so outmoded and disconnected – where they exist at all, instead of paper forms – that in some cases the professionals who keep our food, water and air safe have been forced to buy obsolete equipment just to fill in the forms to fulfil their regulatory responsibilities,” said Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Deputy Chair of the PAC.
“We are facing down rapidly spreading animal diseases, maybe the next pandemic, with systems that may rely on moving paper forms around. This cannot continue.”
Defra systems are critical to the country’s trade, disease prevention, flood protection, and air quality monitoring. But the Public Accounts Committee report says for its customers, that range from farmers to vets to scientists to traders and beyond, its legacy IT systems feel outdated and difficult to use. Defra and its organisations handle around 14 million transactions per year that still involve paper forms, making them inefficient and expensive.
Though it is embarking on a fundamental review and potential restructure of its organisation, Defra does not yet have a concurrent pro-active strategy for the transformation of its digital services, or for challenges like reducing reliance on paper forms and making applications widely available on mobile phones. Defra estimates that it needs to spend £726 million on modernising legacy services between 2021 and 2025, and that fully transforming its digital systems could save £20 million to £25 million every year. But the Committee says the lack of overall vision means any changes made now to its digital systems may not be appropriate in the longer-term and could lead instead to wasted time and money.
80% of Defra’s IT applications remain either in extended support, possibly incurring additional charges for updates, or are completely unsupported by their supplier, and it hasn’t given enough attention to the impact of its poor digital services on its users. It doesn’t measure the cost to users of its unmodernised digital services, so it is not possible to assess the total burden they place on other organisations and the wider economy. For example, previously vets had to buy old laptops to be able to run the programmes they needed to use.
Defra is struggling to recruit the digital, data and technology staff it needs, and so it remains over-reliant on contractors which can cost up to twice as much. The Committee is calling on Defra to explain what new approaches it will adopt to recruit staff and reduce its reliance on contractors and temporary staff to provide digital skills.
“We on the PAC will also not accept a situation where Defra spends hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on a disjointed upgrade programme only to find that it no longer fits the structure of new systems of air quality monitoring, food and clean water supply in this country,” said Clifton-Brown. “It’s time for a complete overhaul at Defra, with a concurrent, pro-active digital strategy that matches every step.”