Blog 05 July 2022

How UK councils can unleash their data, held hostage by ‘legacy spaghetti’

by Mark Gannon


Citizens have come to expect access to better and faster digital public services, from paying council tax and reporting a missed waste collection to applying for business grants or asking questions about housing support. Covid-19 has challenged councils to accelerate their digital transformations. One local authority, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, for example, saw a 300% increase in demand for web and chat activity as a result of centre closures during lockdowns.

The pandemic sped up the adoption of digital technologies by up to four years and led to a large increase in citizen demand for digital channels. These shifts have made digital transformation essential for councils as they try to deliver convenience, support innovation and maintain financial viability.

However, many councils continue to struggle with the digitisation process despite recognising the need for its value-adding capabilities. In a recent Netcall and Davies commissioned study, 41% of UK councils revealed that legacy IT systems were their number one obstacle to further advancing customer experience.

Why are legacy IT systems hindering digital transformation?

Legacy applications refer to sources of information that rely on outdated and often closed technologies. Replacing these systems has been one of the most challenging aspects of digital transformation with 87% of business leaders around the world citing their complexity as a key impediment to adopting next generation digital services.

The complexity, cost and closed nature of legacy systems creates what we have dubbed ‘legacy spaghetti’ and makes it difficult to replace outdated applications. Doing so is often risky, costly and disruptive to business operations, requiring extensive IT intervention. However, the increasing importance of access to this data, held hostage by these outdated systems, to support digital transformation has pushed leaders to look for easier and more cost-effective solutions.

But many public sector leaders are prevented from making the changes they want because legacy vendors make it too hard or expensive. They have concerns about the technical risks of making big changes and they find it hard to develop solutions themselves. In fact, 49% of UK councils believe they lack the needed technical expertise to develop and implement adequate solutions.

Local government leaders realise access to data in legacy systems is the key that unlocks great digital services. But legacy spaghetti prevents that same trapped data from being extracted from siloed applications and being used to support better digital processes. Without the right technology to connect these siloed systems, it is extremely difficult to share data. This is critical because unleashed data is key to accommodating data-driven quality and personalised customer experiences.

Open data paved the way for Cumbria Council to reduce the handling time of six different processes by 80-90%, freeing employees to deal with high value and more complicated tasks. Between administration and inspection savings, the council managed to save a staggering 3,740 hours per year. Its increased capacity level, combined with low-code technology, led the council to deliver the UK’s first integrated end-to-end contact trace system, beating the national government system rollout.

The ‘building block approach’: driving transformation whilst mitigating risks and costs

By using a ‘building block approach’, councils can create integrations to their legacy applications and then gradually replace them, partially or fully, with modern applications, combining process automation technologies like low-code and robotic process automation (RPA). This is intelligent automation delivered in a low-risk and low-cost way.

With these tools, councils have a realistic strategy that recognises the shortcomings of legacy systems and facilitates a way to get these systems to speak to each other so that data trapped in their complex infrastructures can be freed and utilised. This paves the way for low-code enabled intelligent automation processes.

This has enabled councils to rapidly digitally transform their processes. South Hams District Council saved £500,000 in just over 12 months and was able to transform its operations three times faster than its previous systems permitted. Using low-code technology, it managed to overhaul a whopping 90 processes in as little as 18 months.

In addition to being able to work with legacy systems, low-code allows organisations to use their existing workforce’s skills and expertise instead of turning to professional code developers or costly external consultants. This empowers council employees by giving them control over critical local government processes and the ability to develop bespoke applications that put citizens at the heart of delivery.

Councils have the digital autonomy to deliver well-designed and user-centred citizen experiences, taking the burden off their IT team. Once established, councils can incrementally decommission blocks of their legacy systems as they add blocks of more advanced and modern technologies, accommodating an easier transition.

In one instance, Croydon Council had one legacy system that they gradually replaced with a low-code development platform, which allowed them to adjust to the new infrastructure and save a predicted £1 million by the end of the transition.

The future of legacy: unravelling ‘legacy spaghetti’

Councils that have taken the leap and invested in this ‘building block’ strategy have reaped the rewards.

Croydon Council initially began its digital transformation journey by driving the development of digital services to meet the needs of its citizens throughout COVID-19 induced lockdowns. In only 120 hours, it developed an app to manage business applications and distribute grant money during the pandemic. Over the course of nine months, Croydon Council managed to build 10 apps offering various critical services and assistance to vulnerable residents. Using its low-code platform, the council paid out over £50 million in government funds to local businesses in as little as six weeks. The council was able to drive digital transformation and support its community while reducing costs, improving operational efficiencies and reducing turnaround times. And the investment continues to pay forward: the council also uploaded the app to a community low-code sharing platform so other councils could offer the same service to their citizens.

Legacy systems cannot compete with the agility, flexibility, performance, cost efficiency and productivity modern technologies offer. The public sector needs to move past legacy systems: low-code powered change enables councils and other public-facing organisations to build towards this future. Implementing solutions on top of existing legacy systems unleashes trapped data and enables its use across all processes. This freed data means council employees can use low-code to build applications and facilitate advanced automation processes. Legacy systems are then dismantled incrementally throughout councils’ digital transformation journeys.  

The stories of the above councils give but just a preview of the rewards to be realised when the ‘building block’ approach is employed. Find out how more councils are driving digital and overcoming obstacles on their automation journeys, banishing ‘legacy spaghetti’ for good.

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