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GDS must update savings predictions says co-founder

15/06/18

Technology unit should account for legacy systems when budgeting across government, according to report on digital spending

The Government Digital Service should update the forecast of savings from digital transformation, accounting for the cost of legacy IT systems and contracts, according to a report co-written by one of its founders.

Whitehall street signThe advice is one of four recommendations from the report, ‘How should the Government spend money more effectively on digital technology?’ written by GDS co-founder and former deputy chief technology officer James Stewart and public finance specialist Manj Kalar.

The report, launched yesterday at an Institute for Government event, says that the UK Government "does not account for the costs and risks of technical debt" and highlights that the last Digital Efficiency Report was published in 2012.

At the same time, government is hampered by "budget rules that limit its ability to innovate", that "legacy contracts that expose government to unforeseen costs" and "complex decision-making that leads to slow, second best choices".

Recommended approach

The report suggests government develops a methodology to assess the costs of maintaining its technology footprint, versus the benefits of investing in more flexible technologies such as the cloud.

“The key thing is when you’ve got a legacy system, it’s old, you’ve made tweaks and built it yourself - you’ve lost flexibility. Modern platforms can be more responsive to citizens’ needs,” said Daniel Thornton, programme director at the Institute for Government and chair of the event. 

“Once you’re on the cloud, things get updated automatically. Many government departments aren’t on the cloud. They have bespoke systems they need to maintain or contractors need to maintain.”

However, he said, when it comes to digital transformation and upgrading legacy systems in government, “people just see risk.” Thornton said it is not an easy issue and that many departments introduce a new system then face the dilemma of either closing down the legacy system completely, or running them in parallel.

He said the situation is a result of “sustained underinvestment over many years which has left government depending on very old systems for very important functions”.

The report also recommends that the Treasury should allow accounting officers to reallocate planned capital expenditure for digital technology to 'operating' spend; government should innovate via "safe pilots" to spend budgets more wisely; and the Treasury should launch a centre of excellence for smarter spending.

The report was commissioned by Amazon Web Services Institute.

Image by Clay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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