Defra – “A lot of energy being put into building digital expertise across the entire Defra Group”


Group Chief Digital and Information Officer for Defra group, John Seglias, explains the importance of digital and data in his plans.

Group Chief Digital and Information Officer for Defra group, John Seglias

In 2017, Digital needs to be at the heart of government. ‘A visible champion of the digital agenda for government and the UK’ is the vision, for one of Whitehall’s most high-profile Ministries – the one charged with looking after our environment, food and farming industry and the nation’s rural economy, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra).

In facts and figures terms, Defra is made up of more than 20,000 staff across a number of ‘Defra group’ organisations. The part of the organisation Seglias heads up – Digital, Data and Technology Services, or DDTS – supports all activity in those areas for the whole of Defra group: from delivery and management of traditional ICT services like email, to supporting and enabling the group’s broader strategic initiatives.

With a remit that big, no wonder it touches on all UK residents’ day-to-day lives, from the food we eat and the air we breathe to the water we all drink. As a result, what Defra plans to do with digital really matters – especially as it has a specific mission to offer excellent delivery on time and to budget, and with outstanding value for money.

For Seglias and his team, “That means huge variety in what we’re accountable for: everything from maintaining reliable Flood Information and Warning systems to designing innovative digital licensing and permitting services like ‘I Want to Fish’, all the way to overseeing critical technologies used in our Food and Biosecurity area to pay farmers or deal with possible outbreaks of disease… amongst other things!”

Sounds like quite a full to-do list. So how does an organisation that is continually striving to be the best, focused on outcomes and constantly challenging itself, orient in today’s G-Cloud, Agile and light touch project management environment?

As is well known, GDS updated its strategy earlier in the year with a stronger focus on business transformation, in which digital and technology plays a big role. That’s fine for Seglias, who told diginomica government he is:

100% in agreement with this approach – and, as CDIO for Defra group, am proud to be.

We have a really close relationship with GDS and they are playing a key and active role in ensuring our new services support the government’s broader transformation agenda. A good example is the work we’re doing to replace our legacy livestock tracking systems with a new livestock information solution; we brought GDS into that work at the same early point as we approached the industry, which has helped us design a plan that works for all involved.

So, close co-operation with GDS. But, he goes on – perhaps surprisingly – there is no standalone digital strategy, “deliberately”. Instead, Defra has an overall group strategy which, he says, encompasses, and is dependent upon, strategic transformation in how we use and align digital services and its wealth of data.

In terms of how that strategy is delivered, the majority of Defra group’s ICT services are delivered through two large Service Integration contracts with IBM and Capgemini. However, John has a programme in place called ‘UnITy’ that is replacing these end-to-end contracts with a set of smaller, de-segregated and more flexible contracts and services. He states:

All our procurement activity to achieve that is now live and we expect them to conclude in the next few months, but we will still have a number of applications hosted internally at that point.

The plan to replace some of those over the next few years through the use of digital and data services and increase our cloud adoption.

Change is already being seen and felt, though, he believes; for example, Defra has an office ITSM tool in place, for example, ServiceNow, which is being gradually introduced to its Service Management teams.

A common challenge in today’s Whitehall is building internal digital capability. What is Defra doing about that? Seglias says “a lot of energy” is being put into building digital expertise across the entire group.

I’ve brought together a superb Digital Transformation team that’s rich with experience of delivering similar outcomes in places like DWP, ONS – even GDS. And working closely with GDS, the team has adopted a multi-faceted approach to developing capacity here.

In specific terms, this includes establishing Communities of Practice for digital professions to encourage collaboration, investing in training for around 250 members of staff by 2019, and creating new digital workspaces in Agile environments.

All of this is supported by what he dubs a “strong communications effort” that reaches right across Defra group to help others see what it means to work in a digital way and how it can benefit them and their outcomes.

The role of data

Defra group is one of the most data-rich bodies in government and the public sector and is a leader for government in terms of how the government uses, publishes and shares data. As part of the Open Data initiative, for instance, Defra’s made no less than 10,000 datasets openly available during last 18 months alone, data that’s allowed multiple third parties to analyse and produce what he calls “very interesting and useful outcomes that support our priorities”.

Making flood data open, for example, has led to a wealth of apps and services developed outside of government in the private and charity sectors. Sharing Defra’s LiDAR survey data has led to unanticipated use by archaeologists, game developers, architects/town planners, and other stakeholders, including the insurance sector, he points out.

To underscore the importance of data for Defra’s future, DDTS’s Data team has been beefed up, and it’s about to kick off three “very exciting” projects which will use Earth Observation data to transform the way it delivers its services. This follows successful proof-of-concepts that “yielded some great potential opportunities in how we apply our data” he says (and more can be found out and tracked on its blog on all things digital at Defra, here.

Like the rest of Whitehall, Defra needs, of course, to be prepping for 2019 and our departure from the EU. For Seglias, that’s all already shaping his thinking:

Defra group was already embarking on a journey to transform the way it operates and the services it delivers over the next few years. EU Exit provides us with an opportunity to review some of our plans in a new light and even accelerate some of the transformational activities.

I see it as an opportunity for us and a tangible catalyst that will drive us to deliver faster and better.

So how near are we to being a ‘Digital Britain’? For Seglias:

One of the fascinating aspects of my job is that I am both a civil servant and of course a citizen that uses government services.

So I can see both the progress towards becoming ‘Digital Britain’ that has already been achieved, but also the opportunities that exist to implement a true end-to-end digital government.

Being ‘on the inside’ I know that there’s a lot of ideas, energy and activity being focused towards digital alternatives – not just in my department but across government.

I am confident we will get there.

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Image credit - Image sourced from Defra website

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