Are Legacy Systems Holding the Public Sector Back?

Over the past decade, multiple governments have made digital development a priority, with “digital by default” the new standard for public sector services. One of the key barriers to digital transformation has been the reliance on pre-existing technologies, or legacy systems, which has slowed the adoption of public cloud and hindered efforts to improve efficiency in the public sector. We explore some of the problems caused by legacy systems, and look at how cloud migration could improve service delivery in the public sector.

Legacy Lock-In

According to a Freedom of Information request from SolarWinds, fewer than two-thirds of central government departments have begun the process of cloud migration. Given the importance of internet-ready public services, that’s a surprisingly low figure, especially when you take into account the ambitions of the government’s 2017-2020 digital strategy. So why aren’t we seeing more extensive cloud migration? It may have something to do with the prevalence of legacy architecture—rigid, on-premise computer systems that are difficult to improve or integrate—which 50% of central government responders say is one of the key roadblocks to public cloud adoption.

Large swathes of governmental and public sector departments still run on paper, with an enormous number of legacy contracts and databases clogging up service delivery. In fact, the commitment to legacy is so extensive that over the course of the last parliament, the GDS transformed just 20 exemplar transactions to “digital by default”. This is a small fraction of the 700 such services in government, and demonstrates the faltering approach to digital transformation exhibited by the UK government. Legacy commitments are bolstered by inflexible regulations and interdepartmental turf wars, as well as siloed departments that have very few lines of communication between one another, all of which serves to impede digital transformation efforts within the public sector.

Aside from the performance issues, irrelevant functionality, and negative user experience that so often results from the reliance on outdated and unmanaged legacy architecture, there is also a genuine security risk associated with the continued use of legacy systems. Older technology often finds itself unable to deal with the increasingly sophisticated threats posed by cyber criminals, while unintegrated cloud apps—sometimes downloaded by frustrated public service departments—can create enormous vulnerabilities and engender opportunities for hackers.

Few employees within the public sector have the technical expertise and experience to effectively manage legacy systems. When these employees come to the end of their careers, they take their knowledge of the original code with them. This poses a problem, as it’s increasingly difficult to find new hires who can cover the skill gap. After all, why would new graduates want to learn outdated code for an outdated system?

Clearly, the persistent reliance on legacy systems is a problem for the public sector, particularly when it comes to the government’s cloud migration targets. So, how can the UK get over its legacy hangover and supercharge digital transformation efforts?

Legacy Liberation

Many private sector businesses follow a rip-and-replace approach to legacy architecture, which is to say, after an IT system becomes outdated, it is replaced wholesale. Public sector organizations facing budgetary constraints aren’t always able to do this, which is why consolidating legacy tools within a single public cloud platform, such as that offered by ServiceNow, could have extensive benefits for front and back-end services.

Enabling public sector organisations to deliver a joined-up digital platform that improves mission effectiveness, automates delivery, and streamlines services can be an important step in the public sector’s digital transformation journey. Although the lack of funding for digital transformation can seem like an insurmountable barrier, the long-term benefits are likely to far outweigh the initial costs.

With legacy systems posing manifest problems for the public sector, it’s clear that moving to a public cloud platform could be a solution. Find out more about the public sector solutions offered by the ServiceNow platform.

Alex Osborne

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