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Leadership / Digital Transformation

The Home Office must do more to tackle its reliance on legacy IT systems

After being called out for failing to replace outdated technology, the Home Office is hiring for a string of senior digital roles to help update systems including the 47-year-old Police National Computer.

The Home Office has engaged executive search agencies to recruit for senior technology, data and transformation roles – including a post overseeing the “transformation and sustainment” of the Police National Computer, a database well into its fifth decade of operations. The department has been criticised for its heavy reliance on legacy IT systems, but remedying this has so far proved easier said than done.

Only last month the government published its ‘Organising for Digital Delivery’ report, more than ten months after it was undertaken, which flagged problematic platforms in government. The Home Office was cited as a department that had failed to replace any of its legacy systems despite years of sustained effort.

Home Office digital transformation
The Home Office has been criticised for its reliance on legacy IT systems. (Photo by Willy Barton/Shutterstock)

The report showed the government spends £2.3bn of its total IT expenditure of £4.7bn “keeping the lights on” and patching up decades-old legacy systems – which successive administrations and civil servants have tried to tackle.

And it described these “outdated legacy systems” as an “estimated £13-22bn risk over the coming five years”.

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“The inability to extract usable data from these legacy systems has been cited by multiple interviewees as one of the greatest barriers to process transformation and innovations across Government,” the report reads. “By way of example, the Home Office (the Department with the largest single technology spend), while having a clear understanding of the risks and after three-four years of effort, has not been able to retire any of its 12 large operational legacy systems.”

One of the oldest systems in use is the Police National Computer, which was originally established in 1974.

A new role advertised, led by recruiters Gatenby Sanderson and with a salary up to £130,000, is director of the National Law Enforcement Data Portfolio. The chosen candidate will “assume overall accountability for the sustainability and development of the Police National Computer and the Police National Database”.

The advert describes the PNC as a “45+ year old [sic] capability that is deemed as critical national infrastructure” and the PND programme as a “core policing and law enforcement data system currently undertaking a technology refresh and the development of new functionality, aligned to the developing needs of law enforcement”.

Home Office digital transformation and legacy systems

Other major Whitehall departments have made further progress than the Home Office in moving away from legacy IT infrastructure. “Legacy systems, euphemistically termed technical debt these days, remain one of the biggest barriers to transformation in government,” says Rob Anderson, principal analyst, public sector at GlobalData. “Accounting for half of IT costs, it stifles the opportunity for investment in innovative solutions to facilitate better public services.

“While departments like HMRC have been working on a long-term plan to reduce their reliance on mainframe-style processing, others like the Home Office appear to have flip-flopped through different, and often failing, strategies.”

Even though the Home Office is not seen as an exemplar and is referenced in the ‘Organising for Digital Delivery’ report as a body that has struggled with its transformation, its chief digital, data and technology officer, Joanna Davinson, was on the interview panel for a new government chief digital information officer role. With the post not filled, a new Cabinet Office agency – the Central Digital and Data Office – was spawned in its place, with Davinson named as its inaugural executive director.

Former CIO at The Co-operative Group, Simon Bourne, succeeded Davinson as chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office in February 2021. With a new Home Office digital strategy published in July acknowledging the challenges of delivering digital services built on “legacy systems and unintuitive processes”, GlobalData’s Anderson says that even with sustained effort it will be a challenge to succeed where his predecessors had struggled.

“The latest digital strategy to emerge under the new stewardship of Simon Bourne seems more cogent, focusing on a common architecture across directorates,” Anderson says. “The frustration among suppliers, however, is that it’s taken several years and many millions of pounds in wasted cash to reach that conclusion.

“It remains to be seen how successful the plan will be; Bourne is the latest in a series of private-sector imports to public sector IT roles and he will need stamina exceeding that of his forebears to achieve his aims.”

Bourne’s strategy notes how the Home Office will need to continue to transform the way it engages its IT supplier base to achieve its goals, and the department is also hiring commercial experts to work in this area.

The government is also hiring two deputy director commercial specialists for digital, data and technology. Sitting in the Government Commercial Organisation but based in the Home Office, the duo will lead digital major programmes and manage the lifecycle of “large, complex contracts (existing and new) across the DDaT portfolio of the Home Office” and how the department engages with technology suppliers.

Science and technology at the heart of Home Office strategy

The Home Office is also hiring a director of Home Office science & technology delivery and strategy. With the hunt led by executive search specialists Green Park, the role is at director-general level leading a team of 110-130 people “working with industry and academia to build upon and exploit science and technology opportunities for the Home Office”.

“Ensuring science and technology is at the heart of Home Office policy, operations and decision making”, the position will be responsible for the National DNA Database, the Forensic Information Database Service, the National Footwear Database, and will be the senior responsible owner for the Home Office Biometrics Programme.

Edward Qualtrough

Special projects editor

Edward Qualtrough is special projects editor for Tech Monitor.