Nearly half a trillion pounds in tax and other revenues lining the UK government's coffers every year are processed by decades-old IT systems - and the National Audit Office is worried.
The auditors, who this week published fresh research [PDF] on public-sector tech, estimated that £480bn of government revenue relied on legacy ICT in a year. They added that £210bn in non-staff expenditure - such as pension payments and entitlements - were entrusted to the dusty old computers.
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After studying the operations at Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the Office of Fair Trading, Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC), and the National Health Service (NHS), the auditors warned a "failure" of legacy government infrastructure would have a "significant impact" on Blighty.
"The risks of legacy ICT will increase over time as the gap between the system functionality and business need widens and the complexity of the systems and software increases," the National Audit Office (NAO) noted.
"Legacy ICT reduces the flexibility to improve public services, makes it harder to protect against evolving cyber threats and increases government’s reliance on long-term contracts with large ICT companies."
The DWP, for example, coughed up £84.3bn in state pensions in the fiscal year between 2011 and 2012, using a system that cost £385m to run in that period alone; a system that was first introduced in 1987. For its part, HMRC processed £99.6bn of VAT receipts on an infrastructure that cost £430m to run and debuted in, wait for it, 1973.
Legacy systems could well hinder the government's move to “digital by default”, the NAO claimed.
"Business transformation, including the drive for digital transformation, is proving challenging for departments when it involves legacy ICT," it added.
"Legacy ICT is harder to adapt to meet changing business needs. We found that where an organisation has replaced its legacy ICT system, adaptability has increased."
And the problems aren't going to get any better with the passing of time, as the functionality between existing systems and business need widens, skills to maintain and support legacy tech become "scarcer" and vendor lock-in becomes a nasty reality.
The NAO said HMRC and DWP officials recognised there is a shrinking pool of requisite skills to manage their systems. In healthcare, the wide brief of the NHS "ICT estate required a large support team because of the complexity created by its diverse range of legacy ICT", the auditors stated.
But things aren't all doom and gloom, and there is evidence of decent project management, the NAO reported.
The DWP's 16-year-old Pension Strategy Computer system and the 40-year-old legacy IT system were both suitably adapted to the modern world, with "well managed and … stable platforms".
Not all civil servants are aware of the pitfalls of legacy IT, the NAO study found, but well managed systems can in some instances be safely extended, it added. ®