'Please download in Microsoft Excel': Meet the tech set to monitor IT performance across central UK government

Exclusive The UK's Cabinet Office has launched a new approach designed to assess the IT resource needs of central government departments and measure their performance: emailing a spreadsheet and asking for multiple replies.

In a letter seen by The Register, Joanna Davinson, executive director at the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), said her team had created a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Digital Dashboard which in December was presented to the Functional Leadership Group.

That MVP has now been sent to Whitehall's chief digital and information officers (CDIOs).

"We kindly [request] that your department shares data with our team by completing the attached workbook; please download the workbook in Microsoft Excel for the best user experience," she said.

CCIOs were told to send completed returns, presumably via an attachment, by 21 January.

According to Davinson's letter, the information from departments would be used to assess if departments required additional funding, track performance, and enable departmental benchmarking.

"This dashboard will be shared internally within the CDDO to support discussions and internal analysis. The update dashboard will also be shared with CDIO colleagues across government; the dashboard or underlying data will not be shared outside government," the letter read.

According to the workbook seen by The Register, the CDDO asks about the percentage of "legacy technology that the department is currently running and maintaining" and the percentage currently running "without up to date vendor support."

The workbook says:

Central government is responsible for billions of pounds in IT spending. In Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs alone a £7bn IT procurement exercise is in full swing, and appears to be slipping.

Observers might wonder why the team, supposedly the leaders of Whitehall's thrust towards digital modernisation, is using spreadsheets to share data, as well as preferring a method (download) whereby multiple copies of data may be created - making them inconsistent and insecure if shared via email.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the Digital Dashboard was designed to track digital performance and capability across government using a range of measures.

"The current Excel-based data commission is being used to develop an early pilot of the Dashboard, ahead of moving to a more performant solution over time, in line with agile delivery best practice," he said.

"The Dashboard metrics have been developed in collaboration with the cross-government Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) community."

In a separate project, Davinson is also hoping to launch a "tool" to track legacy applications in detail. In September last year, she revealed to MPs that the government had no dynamic list of risks associated with legacy applications, some of which date back to the 1980s.

"[What] we don't yet have as clearly as I would like is an ongoing process for really assessing and understanding what our cross-government legacy risk looks like, and in what direction it's going, and where do we need to intervene," she told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Some 50 per cent of the $4.7bn government spent on tech in 2019 was estimated to be dedicated to "keeping the lights on" activity on "outdated systems", according to a report entitled Organising for Digital Delivery, written by the Digital Economy Council last summer. Further, it estimated that over the next five years this cost could rise to between £13bn to £22bn.

In its report, published in December [PDF], the PAC said the government had "no clear plan" for how it would replace its legacy IT estate, which can create risk across government.

In September, the country's public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, revealed that a 34-year-old ICL mainframe system was one of the causes of a scandal which led to more than £1bn of state pensions not being paid.

The Home Office's programme to replace the Police National Computer was delayed by at least five years with an associated cost overrun of more than £400m, said a PAC report.

Also in September, Davinson told MPs her team intended to have a "tool" to monitor legacy applications read by the beginning of 2022, although that launch date has been delayed.

Davinson has a certain amount of form in government IT. Speaking to the PAC as chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office in September 2020, she admitted that delays to the controversial Emergency Services Network, designed to support emergency calls from fire crews, the ambulance service and police, would cost £550m per year.

The 4G-based system was originally planned to be up and running by 2017 but by 2019 was delayed by five years. A "mindset reset" in 2018 meant the scheme to upgrade Britain's blue-light comms network might not be fully available before the end of 2024.

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