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Analysis: Most of UK agriculture dept's customer interactions are paper based

After decades of digital government endeavours, two-thirds of the agricultural agency's interactions with its 21 million clients still need paper-based paperwork.

According to a report issued by the Public Accounts Committee this week, as of July 2021, the vast majority of DEFRA services had components that necessitated consumers calling helplines or filling out forms offline.


According to Parliament's public spending watchdog, "At this time, only 34 of Defra's 101 transactional services — those that allow users to exchange money for services or update official records — could be used fully online."


In 2022, Defra was responsible for a budget of £4.6 billion, albeit that number is likely to decrease due to public expenditure cutbacks. However, the enormous legacy estate the department is responsible for continues to incur new costs.


The PAC estimates that the Whitehall division is in charge of 360 critical commercial programmes. Only 20% were brand new and supported directly by the manufacturer, with the other 50% on extended support and the other 30% out of support and required "hypercare" from the Defra technical team.


The Public Accounts Committee warned that "Defra may be required to pay additional charges for support" for the 80% of applications now under extended support or hypercare.


The survey also found that the proportion of no-longer-supported programmes raised the possibility of failure and cyber attack.


For example, due to Defra's lack of support for newer operating systems, veterinarians and farmers who needed to record bovine TB test results had to purchase older computers on eBay just so they could use the application.


The PAC said that "Defra told us that it had recently invested around £11 million [$13.75 million] in upgrading the system" so that it could be used on mobile devices like iPads and smartphones.


Given the current state of the legacy issue, it has prevented the division from advancing its ambitions for technological advancement.


The report suggests that Defra lacks the long-term digital transformation plan and vision required of it. Its current efforts are directed at stabilising its older applications by reducing their susceptibility to cyberattack or operational failure. The PAC noted that the government "does not yet have a strategy for the transformation of its digital services and is not taking a proactive approach to challenges," such as eliminating the need for paper forms and making applications accessible through mobile devices.


According to members of parliament, it was more reactive and aimed to solve critical concerns like putting in place the IT infrastructure necessary for EU Exit. "Defra does not yet have agreed standards for IT systems across the Department and its organisation that would ensure they are developed in a more consistent way across the Group," the study said.


The PAC recommended that by the end of March 2024, Defra provide a report explaining the specific steps it intends to take to implement its long-term digital and data strategy.


The United Kingdom government announced its plan to become "a transformed, more efficient digital government" in June of last year.


It promised "user-centric policies and public services that are more efficient, fit for the digital age, centred on user needs and deliver the right outcomes" by the same date.


According to the PAC study, Defra has a long way to go if it hopes to accomplish this goal over the next 18 months.


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