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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Unlocking the power of low code in Defra

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Defra digital, User centred design

On the left, a large black dog with snow on their nose, on the right a lady, with long dark hair and a hat, smiling.

Emma Shaw, Lead Product Manager for Power Platform in Defra, reflects on her team’s journey to unlock the power of low code and enable the business to build their own apps and automations, driving efficiencies and expediting digital transformation across the group.

Low code tools have been a big trend in technology for some time now and many government departments are starting to make use of them for a variety of big business benefits.

The unique selling point of these tools is that you can build business applications, visualisations, and workflows without the need for code. This means that anyone can learn to build and deliver solutions on them quite quickly, expediting digital transformation at (generally) a much lower cost than building from scratch.

The power of the platform

In Defra I manage a set of tools that form part of Microsoft 365 called the Power Platform. In this blog I’m going to focus on the work we have done around two of these tools:

  • Power Apps – a low code application development platform, allowing users to build applications using WYSIWYG design tools, plus more complex development tools for more experienced developers. Note that Microsoft Dynamics (a Customer Relationship Management tool used in Defra group) is also built on the Power Apps platform.
  • Power Automate(formally Microsoft Flow) – a workflow automation tool, allowing users to create sets of business rules on an ‘if-this-then-that’ basis, from simple uses for productivity (e.g. adding a task to planner when an email comes into a mailbox) to underpinning larger fundamental business processes (here at Defra we’re using it to underpin some of our new licensing and permitting systems).

Anyone can have a go

In Defra, we’ve been lucky in that our keen citizen developers (we define a citizen developer as a staff member who is not a developer by profession) showed early on how much value could be driven by allowing them to build solutions using the toolset.

However, alongside this we also had the challenge that many users were misunderstanding what the tools were for or developing critical applications without the oversight of IT and appropriate support.

We also had a whole bunch of risks and fears, particularly raised by our senior leadership teams who had been burned by the organisation’s reliance on grey IT (unsupported technology, often built without any input from IT) in the past, and the lack of governance around this.

To combat this challenge, we undertook user research (to understand who was building what and why, and the main problems with current delivery processes and guidance), and we worked with suppliers and partners (to understand best practice and be linked to other organisations who had been through this journey already).

In addition we conducted extensive research into ‘what good looks like’ when it comes to enabling citizen developers to build low code apps and automations within an acceptable governance framework.

We still needed a vision though

Through this work, I built a vision for us to work towards, encompassing a few key areas:

  • Making sure we’re using the right tools for the right job (by developing clear architectural guardrails and principles for utilising the platform).
  • Applying governance appropriate to the risk (by developing an adaptive governance framework, with associated processes for delivery).
  • Ensuring accessible routes to delivery with defined customer support for each (citizen development, small works, and portfolio delivery for large/critical/complex solutions).
  • Making the utilisation of the toolset as self-service as possible (particularly for the lowest risk solutions) in line with ITSM principles.
  • Ensuring our technical set up is robust and well documented (to make sure it’s fit for the future).
  • Building active monitoring and management of the platform that is automated where possible (using the tools to do this to drive our own efficiencies).
  • Encouraging adoption, reuse, and knowledge share through a community-led approach.

On top of this I wanted to ensure we remained user centric throughout (testing and ensuring we got feedback at each stage) and work in partnership with our suppliers to ensure we enhanced our knowledge and capability along the way, so we’re fit for the future.

Almost 18 months later and we now have around 50 citizen developed applications in production (and many more in development), with our most common use cases being case and task management and many of these replacing existing legacy systems from spreadsheets to Access databases.

We also have around 1,100 Power Automate flows that are in use by our citizen developers and are currently working on a live benefits tracking dashboard to capture benefits in real time to prove the efficiency savings the tool is offering. We now have a thriving community of 400 citizen developers (which has grown 400% in 12 months!) who are supporting each other on the journey, encouraging business ownership of solutions and taking some of strain of support away from IT.

Emma Shaw is Lead Product Manager for Power Platform in the Defra group of organisations.

For other organisations embarking on this journey (and I know there are lots of you), come and join our XGovernment Power Platform community on Slack to hear everyone’s stories, share your own and get advice. I am also very happy to share more about our journey, so do please get in touch.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Amanda Squires posted on

    Really interesting article. We are at the beginning of our Power Platform journey and really need to sort out some governance, so would be really keen to chat with you, Emma - if you wouldn't mind getting in touch please?