UK agriculture department relies heavily on paper-based customer interactions
Only a mere 20% of business applications receive direct support, while a significant 30% necessitate “hypercare” at farming organizations.
Despite years of digital government initiatives, approximately two-thirds of the UK’s farming agency’s interactions with its 21 million customers still rely on paper-based forms.
According to a recent report published by the Public Accounts Committee, as of July 2021, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs’ services still had significant components that necessitated users to contact helplines or complete offline forms.
The Parliamentary public spending watchdog highlighted that currently, out of the 101 transactional services offered by Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs), only 34 of them can be fully accessed and utilized online.
In 2022, Defra managed an annual budget of £4.6 billion ($5.75 billion), but this amount is projected to decrease due to public spending cuts. Despite this, the department still incurs additional expenses to maintain and operate its extensive legacy estate.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reported that the Whitehall department, Defra, manages approximately 365 main business applications. Among these applications, only 20 percent were newly developed and directly supported by the original supplier. About half of the applications were on extended support, while 30 percent were out of support and necessitated “hypercare” from the Defra tech team.
The PAC stated that Defra may incur additional charges for support in relation to the 80 percent of applications that are in extended support or hypercare. The report also highlighted that the higher proportion of out-of-support applications increased the risk of failure and vulnerability to cyber attacks.
In a concerning case, the system utilized for recording bovine tuberculosis test results necessitated users to purchase outdated laptops from eBay in order to run Defra’s application, as modern operating systems were no longer supported. The PAC noted that Defra stated it had recently invested approximately £11 million ($13.75 million) in upgrading the system, making it compatible with devices such as iPads or phones.
The legacy issue has hindered the progress of Defra’s technological advancement plans, diverting resources and attention away from moving forward. According to the PAC, Defra lacks the necessary strategy or vision for long-term digital transformation. While efforts have been made to stabilize legacy applications and address cybersecurity and operational risks, there is currently no strategy in place for transforming digital services. Additionally, Defra has not taken a proactive approach to address challenges such as reducing reliance on paper forms and making applications accessible on mobile phones.
Instead of taking a proactive approach, Defra has primarily focused on reacting to urgent matters, such as implementing IT systems for EU Exit, according to MPs. The report highlights that Defra lacks agreed standards for IT systems throughout the department, hindering consistent development across the organization. The PAC advises Defra to develop a comprehensive digital and data strategy and provide a detailed report by the end of March 2024, outlining the planned actions as part of the strategy.
The UK government unveiled a digital strategy in June of the previous year, with a goal of achieving a transformed and efficient digital government by 2025. The strategy aimed to deliver user-centric policies and public services that are aligned with the digital age and focused on meeting user needs and delivering positive outcomes. However, based on the PAC report, it appears that Defra has significant progress to make if it is to fulfill these aspirations within the next 18 months.