Legacy technology stopping departments from reaching their full potential

Digital government is being “paralysed” by legacy IT systems and contracts with big IT companies, according to one government adviser.

Paralysed by history

Some parts of the NHS are still using 20-year-old operating systems, making them vulnerable to cyber-attack. Sensitive personal records are being compromised because of the unwillingness of hospital IT managers to upgrade.

Government departments are also hamstrung by expensive IT contracts with big tech suppliers. Some contracts have years to run, hampering plans for digital government, say experts.

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has thrown open its doors to start-ups and smaller companies, widening the talent pool – to the unhappiness of larger tech companies.

But some contracts have years to play out, GDS admits. And big IT companies are not taking this lying down. Technology companies have been lobbying Labour to reinstate big IT contracts should it win next year’s election. (Chi Onwarah, shadow Cabinet Officer minister, says the government is still in thrall to big providers. The public sector paid £4billion to four outsourcing firms in 2012.)

“IT systems are crucial to government and these legacy contracts have paralysed them. Big chunks of the private sector are responsible for the paralysis of digital government in the UK,” says one government insider.

Government plans to launch Universal Credit last year were put on ice when the programme hit major IT difficulties.

“Universal Credit was a flagship programme on which ministers have laid their political careers. Why is it paralysed? It’s not because people don’t think we should change the benefits system – it’s paralysed by legacy systems and their inability to build something that will work.”

Mike Bracken, head of the GDS, has spoken of big IT vendors “doing a number” on government, bamboozling civil servants into signing unwieldy long-term contracts.

Sarah Lawson, head of IT and information security at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, says she was shocked by how outmoded some NHS IT systems are.

NHS managers were resistant to change, she says, claiming that systems still worked and they did not have the budget to upgrade. Lawson argues that such outmoded IT infrastructure leaves hospitals vulnerable to attack and security breaches. Lawson says: “Like an old car, they’re easier to break into and they cost more to maintain – there may not even be patches to fix it or even people who understand how these systems operate anymore.”

Bracken says: “We’re hampered by how much was spent on outmoded and out-of-date legacy IT systems brought in by previous administrations.”

At one point, 84 per cent of the budget was being spread between just seven tech giants. GDS has taken a conscious approach to support smaller businesses and start-ups.

GDS launched its own framework last year to get smaller, agile suppliers into the government supply chain, opening up the market to around 250 additional suppliers – including small businesses. It will not sign a contract with a supplier for more than two years.

Crown Commercial Service is working with GDS to assess suppliers based on their ability to write code and understand user needs – as opposed to their ability to fill out lots of paperwork and give slick presentations.

Tim Gregory, UK president of tech giant CGI Group, told ComputerWorld UK last year that the government “is making life difficult for IT vendors”. “The first time one of these SMEs [small and medium enterprises] doesn’t deliver, when something goes pear-shaped, there will be no safety net. There’s no point in a government organisation trying to sue them, there’s nothing to sue. It will be gone.