An influential group of MPs has called for a ‘complete and co-ordinated overhaul’ of the IT systems in place at Defra to ensure air quality, safe food and water supply.
In a hard-hitting report published today, the Public Accounts Committee said Defra’s IT systems ‘feel outdated and difficult to use’ for farmers, vets, scientists, traders and other users.
The committee said there was not enough focus on the negative impact or cost of obsolete, disconnected systems and warned Defra risks wasting money due to be spent on IT because it has not yet made key business transformation decisions.
The MPs noted that Defra systems are used by a wide range of customers and are critical to the country’s trade, disease prevention, flood protection, and air quality monitoring. Defra and its organisations handle around 14 million transactions per year that still involve paper forms, making them inefficient and expensive.
Defra published a digital and technology transformation plan in 2022 which includes IT investment across the core department and its largest ‘Arm’s Length Bodies’.
But the PAC report said that, although it is embarking on a fundamental review and potential restructure of its organisation, Defra does not yet have a concurrent pro-active strategy for transforming of its digital services, or for challenges like reducing reliance on paper forms and making applications widely available on mobile phones.
Defra estimates that it needs to spend £726 million on modernising legacy services between 2021 and 2025, and that fully transforming its digital systems could save £20 million to £25 million every year. But the Committee said the lack of overall vision means any changes made now to its digital systems may not be appropriate in the longer-term and could lead instead to wasted time and money.
It revealed that 80% of Defra’s IT applications remain either in extended support, possibly incurring additional charges for updates, or are completely unsupported by their supplier, and said it hasn’t given enough attention to the impact of its poor digital services on its users.
By not measuring the cost to users of its unmodernised digital services, it is not possible to assess the total burden they place on other organisations and the wider economy, the MPs observed. For example, previously vets had to buy old laptops to be able to run the programmes they needed to use.
Defra is struggling to recruit the digital, data and technology staff it needs, and so it remains over-reliant on contractors which can cost up to twice as much.
Outmoded and disconnected
The Committee is calling on Defra 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 Clifton-Brown, PAC deputy chair, 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.
“We 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.”
Department said its digital plan provides a clear strategy for tackling the current challenges it faces, including improving the resilience of its services; as well as expanding and enhancing our current technology and digital services.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have made significant progress on enhancing and improving the resilience of our current technology and digital services through an effective and wide-ranging investment plan.
“We have already delivered new and improved services to improve flood warnings, farming and countryside schemes and food imports and exports, developed with the input of end-users and customers.
“Defra is a wide-reaching organisation, and we are committed to improving the quality and availability of our digital services and ensuring our systems are secure and resilient.”
NPA chief policy adviser Rebecca Veale said the association was concerned about the PAC’s findings. “We believe Defra should address the shortfalls of their IT systems in order to be best placed to respond quickly and robustly to control, and then eradicate any notifiable disease outbreak in this country and undertake the important syndromic surveillance work,” she said.
“The Avian Influenza outbreaks over the last few years have put Defra and APHA under continued strain, and we do question their ability to respond to more than one notifiable disease outbreak at a time given their limited resource – a concern that we as NPA have raised on numerous occasions.
“Our key concern is the risk that African swine fever poses to the British herd given the challenge the disease presents in mainland Europe.
“The digitalisation of the movement licensing process was welcome, but this is a small step and Defra needs more resource to ensure the systems are fit for purpose.”