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Paying down the technical debt burden



Technical debt prevents organisations from improving their services, and it afflicts the public sector as it does all vertical markets.

If the sector is to deliver on its remit and be a key part of the post-pandemic recovery, understanding and tackling technical debt will be essential.

It typically comes in the form of a software application that no longer fully meets the needs of the organisation. Often this software was deployed to resolve an immediate need, akin to building a tent for shelter, but in time the organisation finds it needs to build a house to improve the shelter and cope with increased demands.

"There has been technology debt in every role I have had, and it's one of the most limiting factors in business transformation," says Rich Corbridge, now CIO with pharmaceutical retailer Boots and previously for the HSE, Ireland’s equivalent to the NHS, as well as major health service trusts in the UK.

Lucid Research recently found that globally, public sector and education organisations spend 28% of their IT budget on addressing technical debt and 38% on business-as-usual technologies. However, the public sector is not a standout case; the research, carried out for low code application development platform provider OutSystems found similar levels of spending on technical debt in financial services, utilities, media and telecoms vertical markets.

Corbridge agrees and says the challenges in retail are not dissimilar to what he faced as an NHS business technology leader, and other commentators emphasise the importance of the problem.

Fix the complexity

"If you don't fix the back end complexity, and you put in new systems that are hardwired into the legacy, then you are building up more debt," says Dr Jerry Fishenden, who chaired the privacy and consumer advisory group in the Cabinet Office for five years, is now a member of the Scottish Government’s Digital Identity Scotland Expert Group, and advised the parliamentary select committee inquest into technology spending under the Coalition Government.

"Technical debt is not a technical problem, it is a business problem, and the way that we talk about it becomes highly important," says Claire Priestley, interim chief digital and information officer at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The Lucid Research found that 69% of CIOs across all sectors believe technical debt limits the ability of their organisations to innovate, and 61% say it is damaging the performance of the business. That damage to performance can lead to poor health outcomes, degraded services to taxpaying citizens, or internal inefficiencies that have to be resolved via increases in the workforce or slow manual processes.

When asked how they planned to deal with technical debt, the research found the most common responses across all vertical markets were preventing talent loss and reducing the number of programming languages and frameworks.

Although the public sector scores highly on purpose, in the current technology talent market, reducing headcount churn is unlikely to prove effective for long. Whilst consolidating programming languages and frameworks is efficient, it rarely leads to an organisation being able to improve the services it offers.

"People come to work to do a great job and to feel valued and to fulfil the nature of their role," Priestley says. Organisations with poor systems will find it hard to retain talent in both technology and non-tech based roles.

Not geeky or mundane

“’Legacy systems’ and ‘technical debt’ may sound like mundane, geeky, backroom stuff, but they're not. They come with a significant political, social, and economic cost," Fishenden writes in his blog New tech observations from the UK. "If we truly want to use technology to help rethink, redesign and improve our public services — to deliver more effective, evidence based policies in a timely and efficient way — politicians need to get serious about tackling these issues."

"I worry that a lot of the bespoke code being created in government at the moment is building up additional technical debt," Fishenden says of the current demand for new digital government services, whilst tech debt and legacy IT remains unaddressed.

In central government, close to half of the IT budget is allocated to business-as-usual technologies, the Organising for Digital Delivery report published in July 2021 found.

Too often, technical debt exists because organisations fail to address its debt levels.

"I like to talk about maintenance, which is a known and understood cost, just like a building, the organisation knows that not keeping up with maintenance will lead to risks and further costs. It is the same with technology, we have an estate, and we have to look after it," Priestley says.

She adds that it is vital that maintenance and its costs are understood by the organisation as part of the operational costs.

Factor in code maintenance

"All of us have to make we have to make sure that the management and maintenance of our code, software, and applications is something that is factored into our daily lives or a weekly sprint. And, if it is not, then we are doing something wrong."

Fishenden adds that risk aversion in the public sector plays a part in preventing organisations from tackling their technical debt. The fear of a system failure while updating or replacing legacy systems in essential and time-critical services inevitably makes for unwelcome headline news.

Technical debt is a by-product of change; an organisation will develop or deploy software to deal with an issue at a specific time, but then demand or a new regulation will mean that another new technology is deployed. If organisations do not find ways to decommission applications, then the tech debt increases.

As with any organisation, there are times when a level of debt has to exist in order to meet the needs of citizens, but a constant process of analysing and removing debts from the technology estate is efficient and necessary.

Image from iStock, NiserIN

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