March 2019 Brexit deadline will mean more risk for new systems, says Defra CDIO


Defra is affected by 25% of all incoming EU regulations to the UK and is having to prioritise its digital investments ahead of Brexit.

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

Without an agreed transitional period, the UK is heading for a hard Brexit – or a ‘cliff edge’, as many have described it – come March 2019, when it formally leaves the European Union. This may change as the UK continues to negotiate with the EU, but government departments are preparing for the March 2019 deadline, just 18 months away.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is going to be hit hard by the exit from the Union, given that 25% of all EU regulational supply to the UK impacts the department. This is both an opportunity and a risk, and if not transitional agreement is reached, more risk will have to be factored into the new systems.

This is the view of Defra’s chief digital and information officer, John Seglias, who was speaking at the Think Digital Government 2017 event in London last week.

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.

Much of Seglias’ talk on the day focused on how the Defra is undergoing a ‘transformation’ of its technology, as it changes the way in which the group’s ICT is delivered. At the moment, the majority of Defra group’s ICT services are delivered through two large Service Integration contracts with IBM and Capgemini. However, Seglias 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 said:

The variety of the work that we actually deliver and we are responsible for is mindblowing sometimes. Anything from flood forecasting, to food imports, pet passports and managing bird flu. We have this wide variety of legislation and delivery that we are responsible for.

There’s been a lot of work in the last few years, especially working with GDS to move away from delivery based on legacy systems, legacy processes and a lot of paper based processes, to using digital technology more effectively.

A shock

Seglias said that the result of the EU referendum last summer “surprised” Defra, but he added that the focus is now on how to make Brexit a success. He explained:

It has an enormous impact on Defra, which is a small department in government, but it’s responsible for about 25% of all EU regulational supply to UK government. So, it’s the department [that is responsible for the most EU regulation]. Anything from paying the farmers, water quality, tracking animals, all that stuff we do.

And it’s not just the amount of regulation impacting Defra, but the fact that it doesn’t actually have control of the systems currently being used. Seglias said:

So when we sat down and thought, what’s the impact going to be and how are we going to deal with this? Actually we realised quite quickly that a lot of that data, a lot of those systems, are hosted by the EU. So they’re not hosted in the UK, they’re centrally managed.

So, what does that mean in practice? What timeframe do I have? What can I deliver in the timeframe that I have? What’s the minimum viable product that I need?

That’s the kind of work that we are doing right now, to understand and deliver those changes. Of course you have to take a risk-based approach, to say that ‘I can’t do all these things in the timeframe that we have, for many reasons, including that we are not a huge IT organisation’. We do not have the skills and we will not be able to bring all the skills in time to do all these things. So that’s quite a challenging discussion that we’re having internally at the department.

A plan

Seglias explained that Defra is trying to use the exit from the EU as a “catalyst” to drive the transformation work that Defra wants to carry out, regardless. He said that because much of the legislation and regulation that the department works with currently has been “imposed” by the EU, as Brexit kicks in this gives the department an opportunity to review the future systems and ask: how can it make these more streamlined and use digital technology to deliver some of the outcomes that it wants to deliver?

Seglias said that “there are good opportunities there” and Defra is assessing those.

However, when asked by diginomica/government if the department was working towards the March 2019 deadline, or if it was hoping for a transitional agreement to be made, Seglias admitted that a hard stop in 18 months time would introduce more risks into the systems. He said:

We are working on what we know to be true. And what we know to be true right now is that the date affects us from March 2019. That is what is known and that is what we have to work against. Now, if there was a transitional period, then you would need to know how long that was – because a year versus three years makes a big difference. That doesn’t change what we have to do, it changes the scope of what we do and over what period we do it. It takes away risk, for example.

Because if you’re trying to work very quickly to deliver stuff from March 2019, you insert risk into your processes and into what it is you’re delivering. The other thing we would be able to do is if we had more time is to look at the scope of the products we are developing and say let’s do it properly, 100% functionality that we need.

Whereas if you only have 18 months, or whatever it is left, you have to be very choosey with the scope. It’s not black and white, so you may decide to build everything for one system, and little bit for another system. Right now we are working against we know, which is March 2019, as you would expect.

diginomica/government is working in partnership with Think AI for Public Sector 2017, click on the image below for more details

Image credit - Image sourced from Defra website

Disclosure - diginomica is working in partnership with Think Digital Partners, the creators of Think Digital Government 2017

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