Tackling Defra’s ageing digital services – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committee of Public Accounts

Related inquiry: Tackling Defra’s ageing digital services

Date Published: 10 May 2023

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Defra has one of the most significant legacy IT challenges across government, with a proliferation of outdated applications across the Department and the many other organisations that make up the Defra Group. While Defra is making good progress in tackling its most urgent legacy systems it does not have a long-term strategy for its much-needed wider digital transformation. Defra systems are used by a wide range of customers and are critical to the country’s trade, disease prevention, flood protection, and air quality monitoring. To these groups of customers its legacy IT systems feel outdated and difficult to use, often being reliant on paper forms or documents. Defra and its organisations handle around 14 million transactions per year that still involve paper forms, making them inefficient and expensive. Defra does not 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. Defra estimates that it needs to spend £726 million on modernising legacy services between 2021 and 2025, but that fully transforming its digital systems could save £20 million to £25 million every year.

At the same time as addressing the challenges posed by legacy IT, Defra is undertaking a business transformation process which includes potentially major structural changes to Defra and its arm’s-length bodies. Defra does not currently have a vision of how the transformed Department and its organisations will operate. This means that any changes made now to its digital systems may not be appropriate once longer-term decisions about the structure of the Department and its organisations have been made. This may lead to unnecessary time and money spent implementing these changes. 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 Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) at the Cabinet Office is working with departments to ensure that at least 50 of the 75 highest priority customer services across government reach a “great” standard by 2025. CDDO has reviewed nine of these services but only one of these meets this standard. CDDO’s attempts to establish strong cross-government collaboration and agree challenging commitments to replace legacy systems with departments are positive steps towards improving digital services more widely. Despite its confidence that it can meet its commitments by the 2025 deadline Defra’s current plans do not show how it will do so.