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Rod licences, waste exemptions and mass working from home – a year like no other

Harriet Green and Myra Hunt - Chief Digital Officers

In a year like no other, the list of achievements from our teams is really worth celebrating and makes us very proud. It also makes writing this blog difficult because we can’t possibly highlight every single success and achievement, there are simply too many. So, we’ll pick out some highlights that have made a big difference, while at the same time collectively celebrating everything our teams have achieved.

New digital services change lives

Over the course of the year our teams have developed new digital services and extended others, enabling Defra colleagues and our fellow citizens to do things online they weren’t previously able to. From renewing a fishing rod licence to assessing the flood risk of homes, to applying for a waste exemption certificate – we’ve made it easier.

Flood information service screenshot

Continuous improvement of our digital services makes a big difference to people’s lives, and in a year when citizens and businesses have relied more than ever on government, that’s important. This is brought into sharper focus as we see our content teams writing, rewriting (and still rewriting) hundreds of pieces of EU Exit-related content as we near the end of the transition period, to guide and support citizens and businesses.

Defra received over 30 million-page views on GOV.UK this year, a huge upturn in demand which shows how we’ve helped many millions of people find the information they need through the pandemic. We also published one of the first accessibility policies for any government department.

We’re about more than just digital services though

As a function, we’ve driven business change and innovation. We’ve created a new Defra ‘Blueprint for Automation’, and grown our Robotics Automation Centre of Excellence, which is steadily delivering automations which remove repetitive, low value tasks for staff and deliver better faster services to users.

We commissioned work to introduce new technology standards and assurance, and we’ve made good progress on addressing some of our legacy application and data platform issues, such as the programme to modernise the SAM platform at the heart of Bovine TB control.

We’ve made real progress in developing our business planning and performance, portfolio management and project delivery capabilities. Throughout the year colleagues in Defra Digital have been delivering in excess of 130 plus projects at any one time, realising benefits across Defra, our Arm’s Length Bodies and for the public.

Ruby team members on video call

Flexibility is the key to……remote working

In addition, our strategic engagement with those Arm’s Length Bodies - the starting point for us in understanding their needs and how we can deliver them – has seen a step change, with deep collaboration and rapid communication which underpinned the propositions that we put forward in the Spending Review bid.

And all of this has happened against a backdrop none of us could have foreseen twelve months ago: Covid-19. We responded by helping the department pivot, almost overnight, to become a homeworking organisation. To assist with this, we developed new HR management tools within days, and we enhanced systems so the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) could contribute to the UK Government laboratory testing response.

In a way, it’s easy for us to reel off a list of ‘stuff’ that our teams have achieved and delivered, but this doesn’t fully do justice to the efforts of those people. They have worked incredibly hard in extraordinary, and for some very personally difficult, circumstances. As we’ve acknowledged, while we have asked staff to prioritise their wellbeing and supported practical ways of doing this, we have also continued to ask for work to be delivered – and staff have responded brilliantly.

While dealing with personal challenges, trying to keep themselves and their families safe, home-schooling kids, caring for loved ones, maybe even volunteering, and adjusting to home now also being the workplace for most of us – our staff have continued to deliver for Defra and those who depend on Defra.

Saying thank you can mean so much

We reflected ‘virtually’ as a team on some of the things we’ve experienced this year in the last of our 'All Staff' engagement sessions recently. Though we hold these sessions quite regularly, this one felt really significant as it was the opportunity to say a huge ‘Thank You’.

We also needed to acknowledge that some tough challenges still lie ahead. With the UK’s transition out of the European Union a matter of days away, and with Covid restrictions likely to be in place for some months to come, we’ll need to support each other through some choppy waters. What this year has shown us both is that our team is up to the challenge.

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