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Legacy systems and security will continue to dominate the agenda for public sector IT professionals

Sascha Giese

By Sascha Giese, SolarWinds Head Geek 

When protecting computer systems and networks, the “biggest cyber risk is complacency, not hackers.” That’s according to John Edwards, the UK’s Information Commissioner who warned that companies are leaving themselves open to cyberattacks by ignoring crucial measures such as updating software and training staff.

The warning comes as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) issued a fine of £4.4m fine to a Berkshire-based construction firm for failing to keep personal information about its staff secure.

Although Edward’s comments were addressed at businesses, he may have just as well speaking to the public sector.

Recent high-profile incidents concerning the use of private communications within the government underline, yet again, the difficulties public sector IT staff face daily in keeping the nation’s data safe and secure.

That’s why cybersecurity is a growing concern that will continue to dominate the workload of IT professionals, as highlighted by seventh Public Sector Cybersecurity Survey Report.

But it’s not the only issue to dominate the ‘to-do’ list of IT professionals working in the public sector. As they look ahead to 2023, the ongoing reliance on legacy systems is a constant brake on progress and a drain on resources.

The ongoing drag caused by legacy systems

It was a point highlighted in an independent government report published in July 2021 —Organising for digital delivery — which touched upon the extent to which out-of-date “legacy systems” are still being used even though they are often built on obsolete technical platforms or still using programming languages that are no longer widely supported.

Its analysis found: “[A]lmost 50% of current Government IT spend (£2.3 billion out of a total central Government spend of £4.7 billion in 2019) is dedicated to ‘keeping the lights on’ activity on outdated legacy systems, with an estimated £13-22 billion risk over the coming five years.”

This level of expenditure is simply unsustainable. But while much of the talk about legacy systems pivots around cost and the fact they were not designed for today’s data-demanding world, this ageing technology is also at the root of other problems, such as recruitment shortfalls.

Although the government is constantly looking to attract new talent, today’s graduates are unlikely to want to work on increasingly redundant systems. Or, to put it another way, the public sector lacks the innovation many younger people require as part of a fulfilling career. Add in the salary gap between the public and private sectors, and there is little wonder that government agencies struggle to fill positions.

Privately, some people have suggested the recent high-profile job losses at some of the biggest tech employers could be a fillip for public sector recruitment for those looking for job security during economic uncertainty and job insecurity.

Recruiting IT talent for the future

If true, it’s only likely to be short-lived. And it certainly doesn’t address the underlying issues that the public sector needs to resolve if it is to plug the skills gap.

Of course, while some things are beyond the control of IT managers, some areas could be addressed. And that includes addressing the ever-growing IT complexity within the public sector.

The SolarWinds IT Trends Report published in 2022 found that the acceleration of hybrid IT has increased network complexity for most organisations. Acknowledging this and taking steps to mitigate the pain points would be a good start.

So too, would addressing systemic issues — such as helping to promote communication not just within IT teams but between IT teams. People often talk about siloed systems, but this also includes teams and the reluctance to break down the walls of their own departments.

And yet, by implementing a unified platform, departments not only have the opportunity to bring data together to provide visibility across the board, it also helps to bring people together. And if that means helping to remove a culture of finger-pointing then so much the better.

Such a shift would also help to rationalise the number of tools being used, reducing the amount of money spent on unnecessary software licences and the time spent carrying out tasks across multiple platforms.

Of course, there’s nothing new in any of these observations. Issues around security, legacy systems, and recruitment are never off the agenda. Highlighting them, however, does ensure they remain a constant reminder of the challenges ahead — and what needs to be done.

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