With Brexit fast approaching, the exit from the European Union will mean many changes for UK government policy. This, in turn, will necessitate a change to many government IT systems. One area which is assured of significant change is the UK farming sector where, for the last 43 years, the UK has been bound by the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
In the words of Meg Hillier MP, chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, “On leaving the EU, the UK will no longer be part of the Common Agricultural Policy. In its place, Defra is developing a new policy where farmers are paid for delivering environmental benefits, the most dramatic change to agriculture in 40 years.”
While this means a significant change from the way things used to work, the fundamentals will remain. Paying farmers accurately and on time will continue to be as vital as it ever has been, with any failure having a potentially catastrophic impact on peoples’ livelihoods, the environment and animal welfare.
The IT systems operated by Defra, and responsible for ensuring payments are made, were radically overhauled between 2013-14. Ageing, heavily-customised and unsupportable systems were replaced wholesale with modern systems designed with reliability and long-term supportability in mind.
Hitachi Solutions played a key role in that programme, delivering the systems that each year process billions of pounds of farm payments – as well as providing the fundamental back-office finance, procurement and HR services upon which the organisation and its staff depend. It is rewarding to see that, over five years later, they continue to fulfil that vital role, and will continue to do so through the transition period and beyond.
Looking back on press coverage at the time, Jo Broomfield, then Programme Director for the change programme, said: “Farmers were not getting paid the EU funds that they were entitled to, or they got paid the wrong amounts, and that led to a huge backlog over the last seven years of error correction activity.”
“Given the regular reforms of EU policy, it was vital that the chosen solution was agile and could be easily adapted in the future as required. Microsoft Dynamics was deemed to be the best system to meet both our current and future needs. Hitachi Solutions was able to demonstrate advanced knowledge and experience of working with Microsoft Dynamics technology.” Jo’s words reflect the importance that the new system did not repeat previous mistakes – mandating standard approaches wherever possible and a requirement for configuration ahead of customisation.
But success depended on more than choosing the right software. In order to meet the timescales of the programme, it was essential that the procurement process should not impede the process. Jo went on to add: “A key focus of that new thinking was the need to get into building working software quickly, and not become stuck in the procurement process, which within government traditionally can be very long. So we used an existing government framework contract, and we ran that competition to aggressive timescales. We didn’t drop the quality threshold in terms of how we assessed the bid, but it was a competitive process off a framework contract.”
And once the technology had been selected, and Hitachi Solutions’ services procured, it was vital to align the way in which the solution would be delivered to the needs of the business, but crucially also to DEFRA’s end customers. By implementing a system of customer feedback based on an agile methodology, Defra was able to use this feedback in future software deployment and gradually introduce online services to its people and customers.
Jo Broomfield went on to explain: “Although we’re taking an off-the-shelf product and tailoring it and configuring it, we still try to adopt as much of the agile approach to building this system as possible. It’s been tough: but the fact we did deliver it on time, and it’s been such a success with the users, is testament to the approach we’ve taken. And by delivering the solution in stages we are able to have much more control over the project and make any necessary changes to the system as we progress.”
With the benefit of hindsight, those words spoken at the time ring even truer “We’ve come a huge distance and I must pay credit to the RPA’s leadership. The RPA is almost unrecognisable in performance terms compared to where it was.”
With the system having successfully fulfilled its role in making vital payments since 2015, even with an emerging, new landscape following EU Exit, it is reassuring to know dependable technology, well-delivered, will continue to dependably support Defra through a time of significant change.