back to article Most of UK agriculture dept's customer interactions are paper based

Two-thirds of the UK’s farming agency’s interaction with its 21 million customers still require paper-based forms, after decades of digital government initiatives. As of July 2021, the majority of Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs' services had some elements which required users to phone helplines or complete …

  1. TimMaher Silver badge

    Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester.

    Ooh Ar! Ooh Ar!

    DEFRA sound massively incompetent, even by government departmental standards.

    Although it has contributed to the problem, blaming Brexit and claiming to be concentrating on “cyber” security sounds like a load of sweet breads to me.

    1. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester.

      Sounds like it - and the responsible Secretary of State - are complete Turnips.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester.

      … and run by a grossly offensive complete fuckwit called Therese Coffey.

    3. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester.

      I seem to remember Defra was one of the least prepared departments for Brexit (1) as it relied heavily on EU systems. Thus with Brexit it had to take everything back in house, but as it didn’t own the EU systems…

      (1) It could be argued that Defra was a model department wrt to EU integration, fully benefiting from the shared IT. However, it seems to be providing the basis for a good case study of what happens when a business decides to take back control from its various application-as-a-service providers, without proper planning and financing…

  2. xyz Silver badge

    On the one hand....

    Given there is no mobile signal or broadband near any field for a farmer to use, it's not really a problem. The problem starts with half-assery when city suits try to solve country problems...

    So, as an example and not UK... I completed an on-line thing for a fire licence for various fields.. took ages to put in all the info, went through the process and got a message to pick up the licence at the local dept of agriculture office. Drove the 16kms to the office whereupon the woman behind the counter printed the thing out on A4 paper and gave it to me! Oh and as one of the fields was in a different county, I had to drive 30kms to another office to get the person behind that counter to print off the one for that county.

    I went apeshit via email and promptly got both by return.

  3. VoiceOfTruth Silver badge


    -> The ratio of out-of-support applications also increased the risk of failure and cyber attack, the report said.

    I cannot think of a better argument for NOT requiring or using IT. We're in this world. It's an eternal upgrade mill. Meanwhile we can still read paper records going back 100s of years using our Mk 1 minces.

    1. jwatkins

      Re: Well

      I suspect this is a result of buying software (with a support contract) rather than buying a capability which is supported and constantly upgraded as new requirements are needed. Oh, that sounds like in-house IT. Well... sometimes it is better if you DIY and pay enough to keep the brains in-house.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Well

        Allegedly, once there was in-house IT, an IT division, with experience. Then came outsourcing of much capability, and creation of an Intelligent Customer Function to manage contracts with the suppliers. And there was much rejoicing in the outsourcing companies as they seemed to be better at writing contracts than the government were, and seemed to offer great cost savings in a time of constant budget pressure. And much money was demanded for every exception or adjustment outside the scope of the contracts. As for the interaction with the agricultural community, it seemed to be assumed that they were all highly IT literate with fast links to the internet, and none of them were part of an aging demographic with limited IT experience and access.

  4. TheMaskedMan Silver badge

    "Given there is no mobile signal or broadband near any field for a farmer to use, it's not really a problem."

    This. And not just in fields - decent broadband in rural areas is not easy to get, hence cosying up to his Muskiness for Starlink trials, and before that Boris (I think) promising to improve rural connectivity in underwhelming ways.

    Clearly, all this shows is that DEFRA knows it's customers, and anticipates the fury it would unleash by taking everything online where no bugger who needed it could use it.

    Digital, while often useful, is not always better.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Oh I don't know. I can get a cracking signal in the fields by me, especially the ones with about a house every 1km.

      However the high street in the large village I'm in? O2 or forget it.

  5. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "some elements which required users to phone helplines"

    If industry standard practice is being followed every 30 seconds while on hold there'll be a recorded announcement suggesting the caller try using the website instead.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rees-Mogg is missing a trick

    Instead of trying to persuade businesses to implement imperial measures again, he should just ask Brexit Britain to set the clocks back 25 years so that Windows 98 and IE are still in support.

    World beating!

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Rees-Mogg is missing a trick

      I doubt he's aware of something so egregiously bleeding edge.

      1. NeilPost Silver badge

        Re: Rees-Mogg is missing a trick

        If he wasn’t a GBeebies moron, he could have advocated for a return of the thoroughly British BBC Micro.

  7. cantankerous swineherd

    suspect sticking with paper is more cost effective than throwing away billions mucking about with computers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The steady fall of productivity over the last two decades rather supports that idea.

      Recently took me a year to get issued a license that only required putting my form in a filing cabinet, and posting me a little card thingy. More than 4 hours was spent on the phone to support lines.

      An utterly trivial manual process with a single page form, has been replaced with something that would not be better in any way, even if it were to work properly, which it doesn't, never has, and probably never will. In the end it was slower than growing a crop of papyrus, making paper**, and riding my bike to the other end of the country to deliver it in person.

      The worst aspect of "digitalisation" is that it takes tasks from clerks who were specialists at doing it, and makes the end users, who have no idea, flail around for hours doing it themselves.

      Adam Smith would be rolling in his grave.

      ** Papyrus paper. It was much faster than growing pine trees from seed, and building a paper mill.

  8. Tron Silver badge

    Paper doesn't crash.

    It also doesn't get hacked from Eastern Europe, malware can't lock you out of it, there is no GDPR BS and you don't have to upgrade your biro to use it.

    I was ordered to do my taxes online this year. IDing myself was only possible because I had a physical passport and paper bank statements going back two years.

    I paid by cheque.

    F*ck digital. It costs more, is less resilient and excludes people.

    1. Norman Nescio Silver badge

      Re: Paper doesn't crash.

      GDPR applies to paper records. Covered by Chapter 1, Article 2 'Material Scope' section 1.

      Article 2

      Material scope

      1. This Regulation applies to the processing of personal data wholly or partly by automated means and to the processing other than by automated means of personal data which form part of a filing system or are intended to form part of a filing system.

      Legal text on EU website

      So a set of handwritten records in a filing cabinet are subject to the GDPR. Even if the light is not working, and you have a sign reading "Beware of the Leopard" on the door to the disused cellar toilet you keep it in.

      Article 4 'Definitions' section 6 tells us what a filing system is:

      ‘filing system’ means any structured set of personal data which are accessible according to specific criteria, whether centralised, decentralised or dispersed on a functional or geographical basis;

      If you do an Internet search on the question "Does the GDPR apply to paper records of personal data?" , you'll get more background. The simple answer is "Yes".

      1. NeilPost Silver badge

        Re: Paper doesn't crash.

        Systematic records system.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Paper doesn't crash.

      IDing myself was only possible because I had a physical passport

      My 94yo mother finds herself unable to access banking services as she no longer has a passport or drivers license, and they now want specific ID. The physical office is gone. Cheques are gone. She now has to entrust someone with her bankcard and PIN, and have them get cash for her, and pay people in cash. She has to keep a duffel bag or old teapot of cash in the house.

      I am really looking forward to my own dotage, it'll be so much better!

      1. NeilPost Silver badge

        Re: Paper doesn't crash.

        I hope she has a postal vote or that’s out too.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Paper doesn't crash.

        Passports can be renewed up to 3 years after they expire, then it’s a new application…

        However, if she has an expired passport with a picture that is still recognisably her, a visit to a solicitor will be sufficient to have it certified and be usable for financial institutions. Been through this myself in recent times…

        However, if she still owns her own home etc. you may be well advised to get her a full passport, so that if she moves or goes into a home etc. and has monies that need to be reinvested (whilst she is still alive) financial institutions money laundering requirements can be satisfied that she exists; LPoA allows you to act on her behalf, but banks etc. still want evidence the person you are representing actually exists…

        The other option, which is good if you are the only living relative, is for you to be added to her bank account, so it is in joint names (a lot easier to administer than via LPoA), a side effect of this is that it takes such joint accounts outside of her estate…

        Basically, don’t let the passport lapse; particularly if your mother wasn’t born in the UK or was born to parents who came from abroad; post Brexit these are sufficient to be denied

        State pension and assistance from social services and free (NHS funded) end of life care.

        Fortunately, my aunt died last year and the headaches and battles with the state are now over…

    3. Arthur the cat Silver badge

      Re: Paper doesn't crash.

      Paper doesn't crash but it does get misfiled and occasionally it burns. A friend of mine worked in a tax office when young and he has horror stories about the entire office stopping the usual work for a day to search the files for a missing folder for a tax issue that had become critical(*). As for fire, one of the two times the tax man lost any information(**) about me was when my tax office had a major fire and some significant percentage of files turned to ash. Normally I'd have been happy but in this case I believe they owed me a few thousand and there was no way to prove it.

      (*) "Critical" for the tax man usually meant an MP was getting extremely stroppy about a constituent's affairs. My friend's advice if you want a quick and accurate response is to add "copied to my MP" to any communication.

      (**) The other was when I was transferred between tax offices and my file got lost.

  9. abend0c4

    21 million customers?

    That's roughly half the working-age population of the UK.

    Unless they're individually writing to Daisy, Buttercup and Ermintrude it seems a higher figure than I would have imagined and rather higher than is likely to be optimal for administration.

    1. graeme leggett Silver badge

      Re: 21 million customers?

      Presume a single person can be "customer" of more than one sub-department/system within DEFRA. So a farmer interacting with DEFRA on subject of pesticides, water abstraction, cattle movement, sheep movement, is four customers?

  10. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge

    Should have

    handed it over to crapita to save money

    Then no one would have got anything apart from their data leaked online somewhere

    Ok its a joke........... or is it... ?

    1. Falmari Silver badge

      Re: Should have

      @Boris the Cockroach Nice one you beat me to it.

      Think of the billions Defra has saved from not having a digital transformation project, outsourced to crapita that will end up being late, over budget and not fit for purpose.

  11. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    Rural broadband

    Unless and until all the people who need to interact with DEFRA have adequate Internet connectivity to run the required applications in reasonable time with the necessary level of availability, paper has to be available for use. Rural broadband is a big deal.

    If the government wants to give the economy a boost, for a fraction of the money used to support the banks, fibre-gigabit connectivity to everywhere that has or had a POTS telephone should simply be rolled out. We covered the country with copper wire-based phone service last century: surely we can do better than that?

    1. ske1fr

      Re: Rural broadband

      We can't while we are leaving the rural (and urban not-spot) broadband rollout to the likes of OpenRetch, and they are refusing to lay fibre until a community-based system gets ready to roll, at which point the area suddenly becomes profitable enough to attract OR's attention. If they're going to be the problem they should attract the attention of a regulator that's more Smilodon than pussycat.

  12. codejunky Silver badge


    When the state cannot do its job with the excessive amounts it takes, the state is obviously doing too much to be able to focus on its job.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The statement implies that the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) relies heavily on paper-based systems and suggests that the state is overburdened with responsibilities if it cannot effectively manage these systems.

    Assumption of excessive amounts: The statement assumes that DEFRA takes excessive amounts of information or data, leading to an overwhelming workload. However, it does not provide any evidence or specific examples to support this claim. Without concrete evidence, it becomes difficult to evaluate the validity of this assumption.

    Generalization: The statement makes a generalization about the state as a whole based on DEFRA's use of paper-based systems. While DEFRA is a government department, it does not represent the entirety of the state. Other government agencies or departments may have different practices and levels of efficiency, and it would be inappropriate to draw broad conclusions about the entire state based on the shortcomings of one department.

    Oversimplification: The statement oversimplifies the complexities involved in managing a government agency. The challenges faced by DEFRA in transitioning from paper-based systems to digital processes are likely multifaceted and could involve factors such as resource allocation, technological limitations, and organizational culture. Simply stating that the state is doing too much overlooks the intricacies of the situation.

    Neglecting the role of technology: The statement assumes that the use of paper-based systems is solely responsible for the state's inability to fulfill its job. It fails to consider the potential benefits and efficiencies that digital systems can bring. Embracing technology could potentially streamline processes, enhance data management, and improve overall performance. The issue may not solely lie in the state doing too much, but rather in the outdated systems and infrastructure employed by DEFRA.

    Lack of alternative solutions: The statement presents a problem without offering any alternative solutions or recommendations. It is essential to provide constructive suggestions for improvement rather than simply pointing out perceived failures.

    In summary, while the statement raises concerns about DEFRA's reliance on paper-based systems and the state's ability to fulfill its responsibilities, it lacks evidence, generalizes the issue, oversimplifies the challenges, neglects the potential benefits of technology, and fails to propose alternative solutions. A more nuanced assessment would require a deeper analysis of DEFRA's specific circumstances and a broader understanding of the state's overall operations.

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