Modernising existing IT – leveraging current investments
In the second of three blog posts about the state of digital transformation in government, Rob Anderson, Principal Analyst for Central Government in the GlobalData Public Sector team looks at the legacy technology estate across Whitehall and asks if more value can be leveraged from it.
As I discussed in my last blog, the pace of digital transformation in government has slowed over recent months, due to a number of factors including a shortage of skills, budgetary pressures and the effect of readying platforms for the UK’s Exit from the EU. The number of systems and processes that support delivery of central government services is vast, and involve many complex interactions, having been built up layer by layer over several decades. To redesign and rewrite each and every one would require more resource than is available, and inevitably take many hundreds of man years to achieve; it is therefore impractical in the current environment.
When GDS was launched, an audit of the government’s major systems identified 650 transactional services that would benefit from digitisation. Pragmatically, it focused on those which processed more than 100,000 transactions per year and defined a goal (in the 2012 Government Digital Strategy) that twenty one of these (three from each of the top seven departments) should be totally redesigned from end-to-end to be fully implemented by March 2015. It was an ambitious target which has proven too hard to hit.
A recent survey of civil servants by Civica found that two-thirds believe there is a clear benefit in modernising legacy systems and that in doing so it would increase productivity. Additionally, only 15% of respondents felt that maintaining and extending the lifecycle of existing IT systems is unimportant, with over half identifying that losing such a system would significantly impact operations.
Let’s be clear; some progress has been made in transformation, even in parts of public service with the most complex of back-end systems. The DVLA is regularly cited as the poster child for digital transformation in government with good online services. Yet at the recent techUK conference ‘Building The Smarter State’, Dave Perry, CTO of the agency, described their transformation efforts to date as ‘putting lipstick on a pig’. Devolved administrations such as DVA, the DVLA’s sister agency in Northern Ireland, have accrued similar benefits, achieving a 98% customer satisfaction rating following its partner-led development and deployment of a new online Driver Licensing System in just 14 weeks.
Meanwhile at HMRC, customer satisfaction has increased and call wait times have substantially decreased through adoption of APIs and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to link data from various ageing systems. This enables service operatives to provide a faster and more comprehensive response to customers. Again, this has been achieved without having to re-architect technology that is twenty to thirty years old, but which is the backbone of tax collection and would prove catastrophic to change without thorough testing. Given the current demands on the tax agency to focus on new and updated systems to support Brexit, pragmatism in delivering modernised front-end processes for existing systems is proving a winner.
The UK tech industry is well versed in working with clients to extend the life of live systems in tandem with refreshing and redeveloping front-line applications; transformation doesn’t have to be use rip and replace techniques. Eating the elephant one bite at a time may be somewhat of a hackneyed cliché, but there are many government bodies out there that would be well-advised to take a step-back and view the magnificence of the beast before them, rather than diving straight in and hacking it to pieces.
Then perhaps they could consider providing it with a new coat as protection for the coming winter that precedes Britain reaching the EU exit door. After all, there is no shortage of digitally-skilled suppliers ready to help tailor that shiny new coat.
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