Embracing Digital and Data at Defra

Written by Betsy Bassis, Director General, Chief Operating Officer at Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra)

In October, my oldest daughter will turn 10.  I can’t believe how fast the time has flown.  The gangly pre-teen she is today bears no resemblance to the little baby I once held in my arms.

Of course she’s not the only thing that’s changed over the last decade.  I used to fall asleep reading a paperback book, lit by a bedside lamp.  Today, I use a Kindle lit from within.  I use my phone not just to call my friends and family, but to order my groceries, call a cab, manage my bank accounts, check in online, pay for parking, and control my heating at home.  Who could have ever imagined such change?

Well the fact is that someone did.  And around the world, people continue to re-imagine the world through the digital lens.  What does the customer really want?  How can I use technology to design out friction points and make things easier, cheaper, better?

Those are the questions we’re starting to ask ourselves at Defra.  Unlike corporates, we’re not driven by the need to innovate or lose market share to others.  But we have other drivers for change.  Specifically: customer expectation and delivering better with less.

Whether we like it or not, customer expectations are set by their experience with other service providers.  And thanks to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and others, they expect to be able to ‘do business’ at a time and on a device of their choosing.  They have no interest in our internal processes or organisational constructs. They expect (and frankly deserve) to find things simple, efficient, and seamless.

It’s fair to say that we have some way to go across the Defra group, which spans the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Rural Payments Agency, and a wide range of other public bodies.  As we’ve traditionally worked as separate organisations, our underlying technology is fragmented and our services are largely designed around our internal processes and structures, rather than with the user experience in mind.

When I joined Defra two years ago, I asked a simple question: how much do we spend on IT across the group?  Interestingly, this information wasn’t readily available because the financial information we collected was based on policy areas (e.g. farming, environment, etc).  Once we started to look at our spend through the functional lens, we identified new, actionable insights on our organisation.

For example, we learned that about 50% of our IT spend is on applications and hosting.  When we mapped our applications, we identified significant duplication across our estate.  This complexity, of course, is reflected at the process level, which is what our customers experience when dealing with us. Removing duplication at the application layer will allow us to reduce unnecessary cost and complexity.  But to do this, we also need to re-engineer the associated business processes – starting with the end-user in mind.

Thus begins the story of how our ‘apps rationalisation’ plan has morphed into a wider programme of digital transformation.  This will require agile teams of software developers and digital designers working hand in hand with their operational and policy colleagues to ‘re-imagine’ how Defra delivers.

It’s early days for us and, depending on your perspective, we face an overwhelming task (given legacy technology and organisational boundaries), or a truly exciting opportunity.  To be fair, it’s probably a bit of both, but that’s part of what makes the job so fun.

Unlike my daughters, I’m not a digital native, nor would I consider myself a digital evangelist. But having benefited from digital disruption in other sectors, I’m a big enthusiast about the potential of digital to positively disrupt how Defra does business.

As part of our design principles for the target operating model, we’ve asked people across Defra to ‘Embrace Digital and Data. We’re not simply talking about channel shift or publishing our data sets (though we’re doing that, too!).  For us, embracing digital and data is a much wider concept – requiring a cultural shift away from traditional hierarchies and process towards more dynamic and collaborative ways of working based on empowerment and trust.

As a leader within Defra, I’m very clear that I need to champion and role model this cultural shift.  Yet I’m also aware that my instincts may be more analogue than digital in nature.  I’m counting on my reverse mentors, digital natives and others in the organisation to give me ‘start-continue-stop’ feedback on engendering the right environment at Defra.  The ‘test and learn’ approach to leadership in the digital age.

Check out other blogs and events on the Defra Digital Leaders page here


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