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Interview: John Seglias, chief digital information officer, Defra

The tech leader at the government department most affected by Brexit talks about digital transformation and carrying out one of the most complex projects in the public sector

John Seglias, chief digital information officer (CDIO) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is facing one of the biggest challenges of his career – a complex digital transformation agenda for the department itself, alongside a separate mammoth project focused on the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Since joining Defra in 2016, Seglias has been responsible for a budget of about £250m, with responsibilities including a core project, dubbed UnITy, which concerns the modernisation of the department’s IT estate. In April 2017, work began around the IT required to support Brexit – and Defra is the department most affected by it.

Speaking exclusively to Computer Weekly, Seglias detailed the challenges related to the completion of UnITy, while one of his senior reports, Jo Broomfield, described the intricate task of delivering EU Exit work.

With a budget of about £42m, Brexit projects involve building six new systems in areas such as regulation of chemicals and managing the exports of animals and animal-based products.

Also, Seglias’s team works closely with policy teams around discovery and understanding the role of IT in projects such as the 25-year environment plan and Future Farming, which he describes as “one of the biggest and most ambitious legislative pieces of work in government right now”.

Defra is also managing to spare some time for innovation, but EU Exit is taking up most of the IT team’s bandwidth. “We have to be realistic as a department, since over the next few months, our focus will be quite a lot on Brexit – it’s the biggest strategic piece of work for us,” says Seglias.

The UnITy programme, which aims to modernise and consolidate six disparate technology organisations, covers the core Defra departments, the Environment Agency, the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England, the Marine Management Organisation, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Defra is halfway through implementing the various initiatives under the project, which still has another year to go. The department is also planning for the next four to five years of strategy for Defra and defining the role of tech in achieving those goals.

“We are almost there with the process of building a single digital data technology organisation for the group,” says Seglias.

“It’s taking a bit of time because we had to bring colleagues from the other parts of the Defra group under that [new organisation] and also build structures and create new roles.”

“Our focus will be quite a lot on Brexit – it’s the biggest strategic piece of work for us”

John Seglias, Defra

While Seglias’s team is supporting line-of-business requirements and is working on a wide range of applications, the highest priority in government – and especially Defra, as the department most affected by it – is the work around Brexit.

“When we assessed the priorities and realised that there was actually a big IT component to ensuring Defra is ready for EU Exit, we spent plenty of time working closely with the executive committee and the policy directors to get our priorities right in terms of the IT portfolio,” says Seglias.

“One of the decisions we took just over two years ago was to create a digital delivery team, which is dedicated to delivering the IT around Brexit. Then we were able to continue with our non-EU Exit IT portfolio – which is substantial, with UnITy still ongoing – while delivering the EU Exit project in parallel.”

Under UnITy, Defra’s 900-strong IT team (300 other staff are working exclusively on Brexit projects) and core suppliers IBM and Capgemini have implemented a new service desk for the entire group, Microsoft Office 365 and are about to finalise the roll-out of about 950 new multifunctional printing devices, as well as half of the hosting. The other half will be completed next year.

The department is starting to roll out Vodafone as its new networks supplier. It is also kicking off digital workplace projects for a user base of about 25,000 people, which includes the introduction of new end-user kit, such as Windows 10 desktops, iPad and iPhone devices.

According to Seglias, even though the complexity of the project had been planned and budgeted for, the actual work turned out to be a lot more complicated.

“One thing is planning and quite another is delivering,” he says. “It is a hugely complex body of work and when we started, there were six IT teams. For example, there were at least three different active directories that we had to bring together into one.”

According to Seglias, Microsoft said that Defra’s Office 365 implementation was the most complex the company had ever done in Europe. To illustrate his point, he describes how a lot of work went into ensuring that the transformation did not affect business activities, especially in organisations such as the Environment Agency (EA), which was operating completely separately from Defra.

“The EA does a lot of incident management around floods and drought,” says Seglias. “And considering the way they traditionally use email, with a lot of shared mailboxes, moving all that to Exchange online had to be done in a way that didn’t impact their workflows and processes. If you got it wrong, it would mean a major business impact.

“It’s the kind of project where you have to sit down with the business owners and very carefully plan it all in detail and see how it is best for them to go about things.”

New contractual goals

When Defra renewed its key supplier agreements with IBM and Capgemini, a key objective set out in the new contracts was the reduction of operating cost.

“When we looked at the contract and did some benchmarking, we knew that through procurement and disaggregation into many service lines, we could reduce running costs quite substantially,” says Seglias, adding that Defra achieved a 30% reduction on the previous supplier arrangement in its annual IT budget.

Another key point to be addressed was improving the user experience, which involved renewing the equipment people use, as well as infrastructure.

Defra has a large laptop estate that still runs on Microsoft Windows 7, which is no longer fit for purpose and doesn’t support modern and smarter ways of working, as many machines don’t even have a camera.

Infrastructure-wise, Seglias returns to the example of the Environment Agency to illustrate the issues faced. “If an EA colleague wanted to come and work in a Defra building, they couldn’t connect to the network,” he says. “So we had to create a temporary guest Wi-Fi network to allow them to connect, or even provide them with a separate Ethernet cable to plug in.

“People could not share diaries across different organisations because they were on different Exchange platforms. That made working together as a single group difficult, and the legacy IT was creating these problems.

“So we have addressed those problems, as we now have one active directory connected to the same platform and we have moved it all to one network.”

There were many other back-end IT issues that Defra had to address, such as the support layers for Microsoft applications.

“We had a variety of active directories that were created and built many years ago,” says Seglias. “And through many years’ worth of IT change, those have become a bit more complex in terms of the way they hold the user data.

“Of course, you can’t remove the old active directory until you’ve also remediated all the applications that use it.

“When we decided to move everyone over to Office 365 and cloud and create a new cloud-based active directory, we had to work with Microsoft very carefully to ensure the way the data flows between those and that the new active directory remains up to date – which is why that was such a complex project for them.”

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Defra has a small innovation team whose job it is to look at a five-year horizon and consider what digital technology could be applied to the department, and carry out proofs-of-concept.

“We do a good job at going out to the business and saying, ‘Look at what this technology has done elsewhere – we could apply this to Defra’, then use innovation to solve some of the problems that we have within the group,” says Seglias.

An example of innovation-related projects is the work Defra and outside bodies are doing around developing digital tools for activities such as waste-tracking with the EA.

Use of robotic process automation is also increasing, which is already in place at the EA and is predicted to increase across the group to boost efficiency. Machine learning proofs-of-concept have also been carried out and now Defra is looking at how this can be turned into products and services that can be used in the various departmental bodies.

But when it comes to innovation, Seglias says he is having to adopt a pragmatic approach and accept there are more pressing priorities right now.

“While we can’t stop everything and do lots of innovation, we can definitely think of how we can work to deliver outcomes in a smarter way,” he says.

“We also have to be honest – for us to take advantage of innovation, we have to finish implementing the projects under UnITy, and only then will we be able to implement some more advanced innovations. But we’re not talking about years, we’re talking about just a few months.”

Leadership challenges

With multiple demanding projects on the go, leading the people involved can be difficult, and that is no different at Defra. On the other hand, Seglias says the organisation’s IT staff engagement scores have reached the highest level on record over the past three years.

“But it takes effort from the leadership and teams alike to spend time with people to talk about their wellbeing and health, to guide them through the restructuring process and to help them understand the different complexities, timeframes, and so on,” he says.

“Finding time to do that while you’re also very much head-down in terms of Brexit has been very challenging. And finding space to even have a voice when there’s so much happening already has been a challenge.

“But we have great people who are hugely committed. When they come to work for Defra, they choose to do so because of what we stand for.”

The situation is compounded by the fact that the IT function is also being restructured as UnITy progresses.

“We want the function to be structured correctly,” says Seglias. “So there will be some short-term instability for just a few months, but we will come out of it knowing exactly where everyone is in the function and what their roles are, and so we can offer better outcomes and delivery for Defra.”

However, Seglias is upbeat about the future and proud of what the department’s IT team has achieved so far under his watch, particularly around Brexit.

“I think it was probably one of the most exciting digital programmes we’ve ever done,” he says. “There is definitely a feeling of professional fulfilment when I think of what we have done over the past couple of years. We are still recovering from it, actually – but we don’t mind a bit of a challenge in IT, do we?”

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