The political cost of legacy systems

Passengers arriving at airports across the UK recently encountered irritating delays because of problems with the automatic eGates. One likely cause is the Home Office’s long-running programme to improve the safety, security and efficiency of the UK’s border by modernising its technology: while the eGates are not legacy technology, they rely on systems that are.

Wrestling with legacy technology is nothing new. You can find legacy systems nearly everywhere in the public sector. But this isn’t simply a technology problem: it’s a significant political challenge too. After all, it’s hard for politicians and public sector organisations to be responsive and adept at delivering timely policy improvements when it can take months, years, or even decades, to implement updates to existing systems and processes.

Government has spent the best part of two decades repeatedly stating that it’s tackling “legacy systems”. And while it’s made progress in some areas,

A recent analysis by Government Security indicates that almost 50% of current Government IT spend (£2.3BN out of a total central Government spend of £4.7BN in 2019) is dedicated to “keeping the lights on” activity on outdated legacy systems, with an estimated £13-22BN risk over the coming five years.

Organising for Digital Delivery – Report from the Digital Economy Council, 9 September 2020

The UK’s border systems offer a timely insight into the scale, and necessity, of updating (or entirely replacing) government’s legacy systems.

Legacy and the UK borders

As the National Audit Office observe, the Home Office has two overarching objectives in securing the UK’s borders:

  • to protect the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration, trafficking and the importation of illegal goods; and
  • to facilitate legitimate movement of people and goods across the border as quickly as possible, to promote national prosperity

To achieve these objectives, the Home Office is replacing and updating a wide range of legacy border systems, technology, and data—something it’s been attempting to do for years:

“Upgrading or replacing legacy systems and improving information at the border through digital transformation programmes has been an ambition of the Department since the launch of its e-borders programme in 2003”

National Audit Office, Digital Services at the Border, December 2020

That’s a lengthy gestation by anyone’s standards. But the Home Office has the challenge of implementing new systems, updating existing systems, and replacing legacy systems. All while simultaneously tidying-up historic and current data in a demanding live environment where border and immigration policy remains fluid, and subject to ongoing changes in the post-Brexit world.

The UK’s border systems handle many passengers in multiple locations: there were 141m passenger arrivals during 2019 to 2020, and the UK has over 270 crossing points and 56 major entry points to manage. This is where the recent glitch with the eGates probably comes in: all 298 eGates across 15 ports are being upgraded this year. The legacy systems that help support the eGates and run the UK’s borders include the 26-year-old Warnings Index maintained by Fujitsu (which holds a watch list of individuals of interest used for checking passengers against at the border); and Semaphore, a 16-year-old system maintained by IBM (for analysing advance passenger information provided by carriers).

To understand the scale, complexity, and risks of what’s involved—and the potential upside when the work is complete—it’s worth reading the recent NAO report Digital Services at the Border. The sort of interdependency that report describes—between new, existing, and legacy systems, and data—is typical of large government programmes.

The (legacy) elephant in the room

Despite many promises to tackle the problem of legacy systems over several decades (see the Footnote to this post), in September last year the Digital Economy Council’s report Organising for Digital Delivery referred to the significant problem caused by “Unaddressed legacy systems and technical debt”.

Cross-government expert groups drawn from a variety of departments have come together in Whitehall at various times over the decades to explore common legacy issues. And over time, these groups dissipate, their work often unfinished. Which is perhaps not surprising: departments understandably prioritise keeping their essential systems up and running—to receive tax revenues, pay welfare or operate the borders—alongside the delivery of yet more systems, functionality, and interfaces to implement the latest political big idea.

The obvious irony of course is that policymakers could access and use better data—and hence research, design and implement more informed and effective policies—if departments had the time, resources, and investment to replace the growing spaghetti of legacy systems.

Legacy prevents effective policymaking

“Legacy systems” and “technical debt” may sound like mundane, geeky, back room stuff. But they’re not. They come with a significant political, social, and economic cost. 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.

Government is well-accustomed to investing to decommission, fix, renew and improve our physical infrastructure—from power stations to bridges to railways and hospitals. Any government serious about making better use of digital, technology and data—of being agile and responsive to socio-economic changes and the rapidly changing needs of our public services—needs to make a similar and sustained commitment to tackle this ageing technical infrastructure too.

Unless there is a more meaningful political appetite to tackle government’s legacy technologies, systems and data, they will become an ever-bigger barrier to effective and timely policymaking.


Footnote: legacy systems—a long and winding road

The UK government has repeatedly acknowledged the need to deal with its legacy estate—setting out plans to do so, with various benefits and savings, in many policies and strategies, including:

  • Towards an agreed cross-government services and information architecture (2003) Cabinet Office. Which includes a “legacy to open” roadmap.
  • Measuring the Expected Benefits of e-Government (2003) HMT. Which mentions the benefits of savings when old channel legacy systems are completely switched off.
  • e-Government Interoperability Framework. Version 6.0. (2004) Cabinet Office. Which aimed to ensure legacy systems could be integrated into digital government services through the implementation of open standards interfaces.
  • Transformational Government. Enabled by Technology. (2005). Cabinet Office. Which stated that “Legacy systems will be progressively refreshed: by taking advantage of open standards, commercial off-the-shelf products and asset re-use, expenditure will be reduced and capacity freed for the transformational agenda.”
  • Transformational Government. Implementation Plan. (2005). Cabinet Office. Which included the commitments that “the CIO Council would determine a consistent approach to standards and architecture across government, and undertake a progressive refresh of legacy systems, using open standards and commercial off-the-shelf products” and “a three-year programme of standards and technology development across government, [will include] support for the transition from legacy systems” and the “Replacement of legacy VME systems, which depend on scarce skills”.
  • Government ICT Strategy. Smarter. Cheaper. Greener. December 2009. Cabinet Office. Which identified the need for “supporting the transition from legacy systems.”
  • Government ICT Strategy. March 2011. Cabinet Office. Which stated that “In the past, legacy ICT systems have acted as barriers to the rapid introduction of new policies. A common infrastructure based on open standards will allow for greater flexibility of policies and services delivered at lower cost and within a shorter timeframe.”
  • Government Digital Strategy. November 2012. Cabinet Office. Which recognised that “Many government services rely on digitised versions of pre-digital business processes, layered on top of legacy IT systems, some of which are over 30 years old.”
  • UK Government Service Design Manual, 2013. Deleted content. Which stated that the approach being taken, of cross-government platforms, would ensure “that it develops a well-defined schedule for switching off legacy environments as the platform model is progressively implemented.”
  • Government Transformation Strategy. 9 February 2017. Cabinet Office. Which claimed that “To replace legacy technology progressively at the right pace, we will continue to build a shared understanding of: what outcomes government is working towards; the technology currently in use and how it relates to the services it supports; and how it is bought and supported.” And also “we will accelerate the pace and scale of transformation by avoiding duplicated development of solutions, developing new digitally native business processes and focusing on the specific challenges of legacy contract exit and transformation.”

This post was inspired by my recent tweet—and related work on the interaction of politics and technology:

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