Imagine you’re ordering a couple of books from Amazon. What if, instead of doing everything with a few clicks, you had to download a form, complete it, scan it, and e-mail it to Amazon as an attachment? Wouldn’t you decide to go to your local bookshop instead or find another website that could handle your transaction more efficiently?

But that’s the reality for many government services that still rely on outdated systems which are ill-suited to a modern digital business environment.

Our report Modernising Defra’s ageing digital services looked at how the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is gradually modernising the services it offers. After years of under-investment, major security incidents and risks to business resilience are right at the top of Defra’s corporate risk register.

Defra provides many digital services that are critical to the country’s trade, disease prevention, food protection, air quality monitoring and many other aspects of our daily lives. Landowners use Defra’s digital services to apply for grants to plant trees or to improve soil on their land. Members of the public can buy a fishing license or check for flood risk in their area. Businesses can register plant health certificates or report the movement of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer.

Defra Group handles about 21 million customer transactions each year and only around one-third of these are fully digital. The rest require you to complete a paper form at some stage of the process.

In February 2021, Defra described its situation like this: “Many business-critical applications have been in place for many years and are largely unchanged since their introduction. … End users are presented with systems that feel outdated, lack functionality and fail to exploit the wealth of data available across Defra. [We have] been trapped in a situation where any available funding has been applied to just application maintenance and remediation work to keep them functional, secure and compliant, rather than fundamentally modernising their architecture, or enhancing functionality and performance or contributing to transforming the business model.”

Defra has started to tackle its ageing digital infrastructure and has received funding of £871 million for digital investment for the three years, 2022-23 to 2024-25. But even this isn’t enough to achieve all its aspirations. It aims to digitise its top 20 services by 2024-25 but none of the work to do so is yet funded.

Instead, it is focusing on eliminating its most pressing risks: preventing operational failure and reducing the risk of cyber-attack. With the increased funding in the 2021 Spending Review, Defra has carried out a comprehensive exercise to identify legacy spending priorities across the Defra Group and established a portfolio of work to tackle them. It is making progress but says fully transforming its business will take until the end of this decade to complete.

Defra still employs more than 500 call centre staff to help you through its non-digital process. This is just one of the 25 departments that make up the UK government, all of which face similar challenges. Across government, ageing IT systems, commonly referred to as “legacy”, are a source of inefficiency and a constraint to improving and modernising government services. The opportunities for efficiency savings are huge: modernising services across government could save billions of pounds a year.

We have also published a related report, ‘Digital transformation in government: addressing the barriers to efficiency‘. It will be of interest to anyone focused on the issues highlighted in this opinion piece.

Further reading

Richard Davis

Richard Davis

Richard has been an Audit Manager at the NAO since 2008. In the lead-in to EU Exit, he led numerous audits of Defra’s preparations, and more recently has published studies on flooding, water supply and demand management and the Department’s post-Brexit farming programme. His latest work, to be published in March, is a cross-government study assessing how government is trying to address some of the underlying issues that make digital transformation so difficult to achieve. Before joining the NAO, Richard was a Director at Ipsos MORI where he directed large-scale surveys and research projects for a range of government clients.