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The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is carrying out a comprehensive transformation to create a shared digital, data and technology services function.
Chief technology officer (CTO) John Seglias joined Defra just over a year ago to deliver on this brief, and to address challenges typical of UK government departments: old legacy infrastructure managed by large and slow service infrastructure contracts, the need to digitise services, talent attraction, pressure on budgets and the upcoming challenges of Brexit.
To further complicate matters, Defra’s in-house IT capability is mostly spread across three disparate government organisations, which now have to be brought together to provide services to the department from a single place to eliminate duplication and generate savings.
“To make that work, I’m building a new operating model that enables us to work together to deliver services as a single team. That includes setting up common governance guidelines such as a single set of processes and procedures,” Seglias tells Computer Weekly.
“Even the fundamental building blocks – like a single project management office – need to be put in place,” he says.
In April 2017, the Rural Payments Agency’s (RPA) IT team joined Defra’s digital team as part of the department’s strategic measures to join up services.
Under Defra’s most recent spending review capital allocation, Seglias has identified “a range of bold opportunities for radical transformation” and secured the funding required to improve the department’s IT infrastructure and introduce more modern technology – as well as drive the digital and data agenda.
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The programme aimed at achieving these goals, dubbed UnITy, is replacing Defra’s legacy IT outsourcing contracts with nimbler and shorter contracts that will provide services to the whole department. Capgemini and IBM are the current incumbents for service infrastructure, but will be replaced in the coming year. Other key IT suppliers to Defra are Microsoft, Apple, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Fujitsu and Atos.
Two other initiatives running in parallel are looking into data and digital services to improve processes and drive efficiency and productivity.
“I’m particularly excited by the work we’re doing to explore ways we can get things done quicker and simpler thanks to smarter use of data and digital services. The opportunities are huge, particularly in farming and environment management fields,” says Seglias.
A complex IT estate
The Defra group is comprised of the core department and its 33 agencies and bodies, including the Environment Agency, RPA, the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and others, with a user base of approximately 20,000 staff, most of whom are from the core department and five other bodies.
Requirements from the IT department are diverse, and include provision of services to operations staff using iPads on the field, policy staff using collaboration software to share information across organisations, dispersed teams using video conferencing, webinar software and voice over internet protocol.
The technology team also has to support users relying heavily on smartphones, as well as teams using desktops with intensive processing power to run environmental scenarios through models and analyse volumes of real-time data.
“UnITy has gone to market for half of the planned procurements, with the rest to follow over the coming months”
John Seglias, Defra
Seglias says the first year of his tenure at Defra was focused on “building for success”. That meant putting together a leadership team including new hires, as well as the management complexities related to building a single IT organisation and workforce from various dispersed teams that would then be ready to deliver the transformation plan under its three strands.
“We’re already starting to see that focus pay off, as UnITy has gone to market for half of the planned procurements, with the rest to follow over the coming months,” he says. “We have also successfully procured our new IT service management tool and appointed a delivery partner.”
The digital programme has also introduced a number of new services, including the “I want to fish” tool, which allows anglers to buy fishing licences online, and the animal disease testing service, which allows vets and veterinary workers to request disease tests for animals, track the status of test requests and receive test results online from any device.
For 2017, the UnITy programme is focused on the transformation of the user experience. This includes the roll-out of Microsoft Office 365 across the Defra group, supported by single sign-on (SSO), as well as single managed print, Wi-Fi and video conferencing services.
New user equipment will also be introduced this year, and support will be provided via a single service desk for the entire department, as opposed to the three service desks it currently has.
New developments are to be expected in the digital transformation programme. These include a flood warning system, which is due to go live in addition to a new service that will allow the public to apply online for building permits in flood-prone areas.
A single customer registration and identification process, supported by a single cloud customer relationship management system, is among the digital priorities for 2017, as well as a cloud integration platform to allow data sharing across Defra’s on-premise and cloud systems and increased use of government tools such as identity assurance platform Verify.
According to Seglias, Defra is busy developing a range of digital services, while also working out what additional resources might be required to bring them to fruition.
“We have a well-developed and challenging three-year pipeline, so we are now focusing on understanding what capabilities we need to bring into the team to help us deliver,” he says.
Defra’s IT team will also continue to work on digital services in support of Defra’s business transformation. This includes a single field scheduling and management application, a new livestock information system for registration and tracking of animals, and the introduction of a single lab information management service (Lims).
When it comes to applying emerging technologies to Defra’s IT-led transformation, Seglias is keen to stress that many opportunities are associated with improved use of data analytics: the department has opened up and made public 10,000 datasets since early 2016.
“Opening up and sharing that volume of data demonstrates the variety of information that we produce and process. A lot of this comes from satellites, Lidar and sensors,” says Seglias. “With the adoption of the internet of things (IoT), our data will be even more real time, allowing us to expand our predictive analytics capability. For example, we already use some of this data in our flood warning systems, but our future predictive capability will be better and faster.”
There are many possibilities associated with Defra’s transformation plan, but Seglias will need to deal with the task of attracting the necessary talent to the department to carry out the various projects in the three working strands.
“Simply put, we need the right people with the right skills doing the right things. Some of that will be new to us,” says Seglias.
“But I am truly confident in my team’s ability to transform how Defra uses IT to achieve success, and work alongside colleagues and customers to define and deliver the right services for them, as well as successfully navigate our main challenges over the coming months,” he says.