The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) needs a complete overhaul of its IT systems, which are “outdated and difficult to use”, a cross-party group of MPs has warned today.
In a damning report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also describes Defra’s legacy IT systems as “inefficient, expensive, and at constant risk of failure or cyber-attack”.
Furthermore, the department still handles around 14 million transactions per year that involve paper forms, which the MPs say is “inefficient and expensive”.
Defra estimates that it needs to spend £726m on modernising legacy services between 2021 and 2025, and that fully transforming its digital systems could save £20m-£25m every year. It is currently undertaking a “fundamental review” and potential restructure of its organisation
However, the PAC warns that a lack of overall vision means any changes made now to its digital systems may not be appropriate in the longer-term and could lead to wasted time and money.
Deputy chair, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, said: “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.
“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.”
The report claims that 80% of Defra’s IT applications remain in extended support, possibly incurring additional charges for updates, or are completely unsupported by their supplier, and says that 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.
The report also states that Defra is struggling to recruit the digital, data and technology staff it needs, and remains over-reliant on contractors which can cost up to twice as much.
The PAC is now calling on the department to explain what new approaches it will adopt to recruit staff and reduce its reliance on contractors and temporary staff to provide digital skills.
Sir Geoffrey continued: “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.
“It’s time for a complete overhaul at Defra, with a concurrent, pro-active digital strategy that matches every step.”
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