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The truth about government legacy IT systems — and what we’ve learned by working on them

We all know legacy IT systems are a main constraint to delivering efficient public digital services. Government organisations understand what they need to do. But high costs, complexity, and not seeing returns immediately makes it tricky to get leadership buy-in to tackle it.

It’s simple for others to ask, “Why don’t they replace them?” but in reality, it’s not that simple. 

I understand the pain leaders feel when deciding where to begin (we’ve written about the main challenges of dealing with legacy systems in government for some time.) So, it came as no surprise that recent disclosures from various government departments revealed that at least 43 government legacy IT systems are at ‘red’ risk levels.

A red rating indicates a system is at a critical level of risk with the likelihood it will encounter significant issues or failures, according to the CDDO’s Legacy IT Risk Assessment Framework.

The disclosures show HM Courts and Tribunals Service has nine red-rated systems, the Department for Work and Pensions has six, and the Cabinet Office and HM Revenue and Customs have four each.

The MOJ revealed five ‘red-rated’ systems. It assessed only the top 10 critical legacy IT systems and said it is evaluating the rest against the CDDO framework.

The CDDO framework says red-rated systems “should be given top priority for management, modernisation, or replacement to reduce their risk and ensure the continued smooth operation of the organisation’s IT infrastructure”.

You worry about legacy IT systems, others don’t 

Having helped many government organisations manage their legacy estates, we’re well aware of why they’re complex and how they build up over the years.

Historically, these organisations developed user-centred services that transformed the lives of those using and interacting with them. But those services were often built on outdated platforms that handled the data, which limits the ability to unlock the full potential of the data.

Service owners know about these issues but often can’t get the high-level support they need to address them. Why is that?

Well, firstly, upgrading these systems is costly, leading many departments to resist change. 

There’s also a significant cultural issue. Government legacy systems may appear operational, while their technical shortcomings are less visible. 

Meanwhile, those outside technology delivery teams prioritise budgets towards short-term policy or operational aims, as they see benefits quicker than longer-term digital transformation. 

It leads to the build up of technical debt, which increases the cost of upgrading. The longer you leave it, the more expensive it gets.

With the added gap in digital understanding between technical staff and others, progress on these issues often stalls and vital IT modernisation projects are put off until something breaks.

In our work, we’ve helped service owners make the case to senior leaders about the need to tackle legacy systems.

Transformation Day: Find out how to make a start on getting rid of your legacy tech

What can government departments do?

Without a clear vision of the benefits, some will view upgrade investments as an unnecessary budget burden. 

But it’s not unnecessary if it’s affecting millions of citizens and hampering productivity in the public sector. 

During the Spring Budget address, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt emphasised the need to increase productivity by modernising IT systems and improving public services. For example, the bulk of his announced £3.4 billion for the NHS will go towards updating its fragmented and outdated tech.

Meanwhile, in a recent interview, the head of the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) said efficient use of technology is crucial for enhancing public services, citing a case in 2021 where a legacy system led to over £1 billion in state pension delays.

Gareth Davies painted a concerning picture of “crumbling” infrastructure and growing “maintenance backlogs,” calling on the government to embark on a programme to modernise IT systems.

He called for a shift towards “dolphins, not whales” — a strategy that prioritises manageable targeted IT projects over ambitious, high-risk endeavours to overhaul systems.

This strategy aligns with industry wisdom and encouragingly we’ve worked with many government organisations to implement targeted modernisation initiatives in this manner.

Rather than tackle entire systems, identify the problems you’re trying to solve and whether technology is the best solution. By proactively questioning the current processes, system purpose, and performance, you can determine the necessity of your legacy system.

Carrying out obsolescence risk evaluations and crafting remediation plans for critical systems are sensible steps.

Approaching the problem with something like a Transformation Day can overcome inertia, achieve consensus and a roadmap to tackle your legacy systems. We’ve done similar exercises for other government organisations with positive results.

The benefits of modernisation are clear – from operational efficiency gains to enhanced security, data utilisation and user experience. Removing dependency on outdated systems also enables the automation of many manual processes — and the chance to incorporate emerging tech like AI.  

Ultimately, it leads to simpler, clearer, faster and more effective digital public services.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help your organisation to get rid of legacy systems, please get in touch.

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