Background to the report

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) provides many digital services that are critical to the country’s trade, disease prevention, flood protection, air quality monitoring and many other aspects of our daily lives. Many of these services are based on ageing IT systems and infrastructure.

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Across the whole of government, ageing IT systems are a key source of inefficiency and create a major constraint to improving and modernising government services. These ageing systems are commonly referred to as ‘legacy’. Many departments have legacy systems with similar characteristics: having been built to support one specific business activity, they lack flexibility and keep data siloed for just one purpose; they are difficult and expensive to run and maintain; and there are further hidden costs arising from the need for additional business processes to overcome their limitations. As in most government departments, some of the greatest risks to the services Defra provides arise from legacy systems and technology.

In 2020, the Cabinet Office reviewed the legacy systems of eight departments, including Defra. It identified that government had limited visibility and understanding of the risks, compounded by a historical lack of focus on legacy systems during the budgetary process. The Cabinet Office concluded the primary barriers to improvement were that departments found it difficult to articulate the indirect benefits in business cases and had a tendency to cut funding part way through the budgetary cycle. Legacy systems are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. In July 2021, the Cabinet Office reported that nearly half of all technology expenditure across government in 2019 was dedicated to keeping outdated legacy systems running.

Scope of the report

This report examines whether Defra is addressing its legacy challenge effectively. The report is based on our work specifically with Defra and Defra Group. However, our findings and recommendations are relevant to all government departments that are seeking to address an ageing IT infrastructure and facing challenges similar to those that Defra faces. Our review included assessing progress made in the Legacy Applications Programme and examining links with Defra’s business transformation programme.

The report sets this out in two parts:

  • Part One assesses the scale of Defra’s legacy challenge and how it has arisen, and the risks to value for money and resilience. It highlights the funding challenges that Defra, in common with all government departments, faces.
  • Part Two assesses Defra’s plans to tackle its most pressing risks and whether plans for wider digital transformation will achieve value for money.

Report conclusions

Across government, risks to public services posed by ageing technology have been allowed to build up over many years and Defra has been affected more than most departments. Its systems and services are out of date, creating high risks of operational failure and cyber-attack, inconvenience for service users and additional staff and maintenance costs. With the increase in funding in the 2021 Spending Review, Defra has now established a well-designed portfolio of work to deal with its most pressing legacy issues and is beginning to make progress in delivering it.

Defra has been pragmatic about what it can achieve for now with a focus on stabilising its position and reducing the most immediate risks. But Defra will only get real value from its digital endeavours when it can start the process of genuine digital transformation and modernisation. Successful digital transformation extends beyond the replacement of business applications and will need engagement and contribution from the whole of Defra. It must be an integral part of the business transformation process and supported by a Group-wide data and digital strategic vision.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (6 Dec 2022)

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