Department for Education CTO adopts platform approach, plans audit of legacy, and says GDS “still has a role for us”

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez September 5, 2018
Helen Walker, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at the Department for Education, talks about the Whitehall organisation’s shift towards the cloud and how it has a adopted a buy not build strategy.

College students group walking on campus © Tyler Olson -
The Department for Education (DfE) has undergone a multi-year project to shift its infrastructure to the cloud and is beginning to now rethink its front-end digital services, with a strong focus on user need. This was the message from CTO Helen Walker at techUK’s Building the Smarter State conference in London today.

Walker also added that whilst DfE has made progress in recent years towards building its digital capability, she still believes that there is a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) to play in its journey.

During a discussion about how Whitehall organisations can make effective decisions around their legacy investments, Walker said that the key should be to look assess risks and see where there is the greatest need. And whilst the department has undertaken a lot of work around shifting to the cloud, there is still plenty of legacy to tackle. She said:

On legacy, we start with risk. In assessing the risk of not meeting the user needs, not making payments to education providers, or enabling schools to have free meals on a daily basis, you need to take a risk-based approach to your investment decisions.

We’ve got plenty of legacy. Although we’ve been cloud-first for many of years, that nature of the organisation means that we still do have under-investment and legacy. I’m not going to say we’ve got 2003 servers, but we have lots of things that are still causing us headaches and are risky in terms of every day service provision.

In order to assess this risk to the user, DfE is going to undertake a comprehensive audit of its legacy. Walker added:

I guess coherent investment strategy is a number one principal for us. We set up a new governance body, it’s not chaired by myself or by any of the other digital people, it’s chaired by one of our director generals from service for schools.

We’ve agreed that we will buy first from now on, instead of building. We don’t really want to be recreating unnecessary duplication. So, in creating investment decisions, we need to take the long term view, we need to look at the riskiest areas of our organisation in terms of our systems, and then making that decision.

We are looking at a comprehensive audit of the system services and will try target where we are going to get the most bang for buck.

Progress thus far

Walker said that DfE has spent the past two to three years focusing on the infrastructure, where it made a decision early on to invest in the back-end, in moving to the cloud. Part of this has also been about equipping staff with cloud-based work and collaboration tools, such as Office365. She said that this has been a “significant shift” for the organisation.

However, going forward, Walker is now keen to divert the focus away from the back end and towards the end user services. She said:

Our estate is huge, it’s complex. We thought about our infrastructure, our platforms, making all of that stable and scalable, for what comes next. Our focus now is on the users. We think we have got the foundations right, on which we can start to construct a much more coherent user service to our sector.

Our sector is huge, it’s really varied, our user base is not yet even defined even in terms of the extent of it. We have 22,000 state schools, we have 269 FE colleges, 73,000 children that are looked after by the state. That’s just the start. How do we now define a strategy that allows a coherent set of user service that user base? That is our challenge.”

A data focused strategy is absolutely fundamental to us, given the nature of our data. This isn’t a technology-led change initiative, our transformation is about users first. Last summer we spent some time looking at just the schools user base. And we mapped our services to digital service mapping, from the out in. And we counted over 400 disparate services for the school sector. That’s the scale of our challenge.

Walker said that the focus is now moving to platforms, where DfE can invest in user-focused services and start to think about business capabilities. She said that DfE funds education providers, so it needs a funding service. It pays institutions, so it needs a payment service. It collects and publishes data, so it needs a data publishing service. She added:

All of that is really crystallising in our strategy. It’s going to take us three to five years, it’s not an over night thing. We’ve got a paradigm we are working to - there are four transformation aims. It’s about being user centred, it’s end to end delivery, it’s around empowerment of our staff, and finally it’s around evidence based decisions. The money is too tight to take risks and take punts.

The role of GDS

It’s been a tough couple of years for the Government Digital Service, with criticism from observers from within and outside Whitehall arguing that the department has gotten too big, misguided and lost what made it special in the early days. It’s also worth noting that a parliamentary investigation has been launched into GDS and digital government.

There has also been ongoing reports of conflict between GDS and departments, with services suffering as a result.

However, Walker believes that GDS still has a role to play. Largely in terms of laying the path, providing the frameworks, and leading the way. She said:

GDS still has a role for us in providing a guiding light for departments in terms of the standards and frameworks. We use the capability models. I think parameters in which we can all operate are helpful. Standards and the procurement frameworks do have a role. But, let’s encourage people to lead the way. We want people to show us how to get there.