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Defra “at the forefront” of open data revolution, says environment secretary

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss says Defra will increase investment in IT, science and facilities by 30%

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss wants the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to lead the way “in the next phase of change”, and reiterates her promise to release 8,000 datasets by June 2016.

In a speech at the Institute for Government, Truss said that the technology revolution means that people expect services to be responsive and seamless, “shaped around their needs and not around organisational convenience”.

“I’m pleased to say that Defra is at the forefront of the open data revolution. By June, we will be on target to release 8,000 datasets – as I promised last summer,” she said.

“I think it’s an immense achievement of our department that one-third of all of the government’s open data will be Defra’s – we don’t have one-third of the government budget, but we’ve got one-third of all the data out there.”

She added that the department’s data is already being used to drive “exciting advances in mapping”, and that Defra’s 3D map of the country – which has been built up with airborne laser readings – are being used by architects in London and Minecraft games developers.

As part of the department’s plans to become more flexible, it will also begin to share IT, human resources and communications with Natural England and the Environment Agency.

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Defra is increasing its capital investment by 12% over the course of this parliament, which means that – alongside raising spend on flood defences after the recent floods – it will raise its investment in IT, science and facilities by 30%.

“This new technology will help us to assess risk more precisely and to automate more monitoring and inspection, enabling us to reduce our running costs by 15%,” she said.

Truss added that it also meant the department can introduce a single helpline for farmers and “streamline the way people apply for environmental permits and track animal movements”.

Rural payments digital service programme

Defra’s perhaps most notable IT project is its rural payments digital service programme – run together with the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) – and aims to process claims for European Union subsidy payments to farmers.

In 2015, the system had to be taken offline and farmers had to resort to pen and paper to submit their claims due to problems with the IT. The project led to a damning NAO report, which found dysfunctional leadership and spiralling costs.

On 29 January 2016, Computer Weekly reported that members of Parliament were calling for guarantees the system would work when farmers apply for payments this year.

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