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DfE's digital and technology strategy

Digital and technology logo

In summer 2020 Digital and Technology came together under the single leadership of a Chief digital and technology officer. The next 12 months will be our first year of operating together and we wanted to mark this occasion by sharing, in the open, our priorities and ambitions for 2021.

We’ve been inspired by others in the UK public sector publishing clear and simple strategies for digital and technology. At Defra digital and design thinking is influencing the future of farming. Greenwich council has a bold and pragmatic 4 year strategy, and at the Ministry of Justice its digital strategy is in a single blog post.

Everything in this strategy is intended to contribute to excellent outcomes in education and care – through simple, safe and easy-to-use digital and technology services.

Some useful context

We’re a broad community of digital and technology professionals, working throughout the Department for Education (DfE). Sometimes our connection to education and care is clear and easy to describe – we are part of teams who design and operate services used by teachers, students and carers.

Often our connection is indirect, but equally important – we make sure that our people and suppliers can work effectively every day, with the right digital tools  underpinned by the most suitable technologies.

We aspire to be an agile organisation but we also need clarity and consistency to make sure our complex organisation is aligned with the needs of the education sector. To make sure we achieve this, we’ve identified 4 priorities for 2021.

Respond to the needs of children and students

A global crisis needs a rapid response. We are shaping our teams, our processes, and our strategy to be responsive to our users' needs. If we need to prioritise something new and unexpected, we'll need ready-formed teams to pivot their focus. And, when the time is right, those teams will return to their original priorities. This stops us wasting time and money forming teams and then breaking them apart.

Run the business

Digital and technology has been a part of DfE for decades – we run over 400 services within the department, and in the education and care sectors. While the pandemic continues to disrupt, keeping our services running safely and effectively is vital.

Reduce burden on the system

We know teachers, education administrators and carers spend a lot of time sharing information with us so we can design, build and run our services. In some cases, we take up too much of their time.

We use our expertise and take greater consideration to make sure we don't burden them or the system.

Raise the bar

DfE must become a leader in digital and technology to be able to support a world-class, modern education and care system. To achieve this, we embrace digital and technology skills within the Civil Service. This means we are creating a workplace where skilled professionals can thrive to do their best work.

Crucially, our pay and benefits must be competitive.

Things we’ll do, and the services we’ll deliver

There are specific things we need to focus on to achieve our 4 priorities while  supporting the DfE in all areas of service delivery both internally and externally.

Bringing policy and delivery even closer

The coronavirus pandemic has led to digital and technology playing a much bigger role in how our department shapes its policy.

We’ll continue to integrate policy with design and digital skills so that we can offer better services. This puts us ‘in the room’ at the very start of policy making rather than at the point of delivery.

Supporting all learners to flourish

In 2021, we’ll continue to help nurseries, schools and colleges and their learners thrive with internet technology and services.

Ultimately all the services we provide should be digital by default, with the essential tools in place for our users and with universally available remote education (often called ‘blended learning’).

Using cross-government platforms

GOV.UK Platform as a Service homepage

We're increasingly using platforms like GOV.UK Notify and GOV.UK Platform as a Service. Departments can use these technologies when building and running services to make them faster, simpler and safer.

We continue to invest in our own platforms too, such as our cloud hosting platform, and DfE Sign-in, which makes it simpler and safer for teachers to access services.

We’ll continue to gather the data to show if platforms are succeeding or failing. We’ll make the best use of good ones, and quickly reconsider those that are not as effective.

Civil servants are users too

As the UK starts the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic we need to adapt how we work. We’ve got a revolution in working practices to consider.

It’s crucial that we give our people and our suppliers the kit and tools they need to do their best work.

We know the shift to internet-era ways of working will continue, and we must be part of this, mindful that there’s a balance to strike between supporting new ways of working, while maintaining security and value for money.

Managing legacy technologies

Our strategy must also address one of our greatest challenges – managing legacy technology, processes and services. Legacy systems are common: it’s a side effect of how we fund, buy, build and operate.

Changing these systems is possible, but it cannot be addressed in 2021 alone. It will take time. We’ll use several approaches, which collectively will make an impact. We’ll:

  • reduce our highest priority legacy technology risks
  • stop services where the risk outweighs their value
  • value thorough and excellent maintenance of our software, bringing business operations and development closer (this known as a DevOps culture)
  • propose new ways to fund, buy, build and operate
  • publish new principles and standards to avoid these problems in the future

Maturing our approach

Service Standard home page on GOV.Uk

Digital delivery is where we connect most directly with DfE and its overarching strategy. It is where we work in closest partnership with policy makers, service owners and accountable senior leaders across the department.

As we build, design and iterate more services we’ll bring them together in a joined up way that works for our users.

We’ll carry on improving existing services so they meet the Service Standard.

Keeping our services secure

In 2021, we’ll reduce our reliance on suppliers, and grow a highly skilled cyber security team. This will enable us to embed security more deeply in how we work, making sure what we deliver is designed to be secure in every step of its development.

Working in well-established, multidisciplinary teams

To do the vital things listed above we need to change how we organise ourselves to inspire our people to do – and deliver – brilliant things.

Increasingly we'll work in long-lived, resilient multidisciplinary teams instead of ones we set up for a short time such as a number of weeks. This is quite a step change in government but we know long-lived teams that can pivot to support new priorities, work better together as a unit. This allows for a more consistent approach to professional support and career development.

We want our teams to reflect the diversity of our education and care sectors. Diverse teams build better services.

We'll reduce the number of contractors and instead recruit civil servants. This will make our workforce more sustainable, and considerably lower cost for the same skills.

Our focus is user-centred thinking, over short-term cost efficiency. We want to move away from the outdated notion that the IT department is an internal supplier and cost centre. This doesn’t mean we forget about short-term efficiency – but we’ll consider it in a wider context of systems, services and strategy.

Governance – making sure we do the right things at the right time

We’re improving governance.

Historically, like much of the technology industry, we’ve had lots of different decision-making ‘gates’. A gate for security, a gate for architecture, a gate for visual design.

Now, we’re taking an iterative, multidisciplinary approach – minimising the number of internal processes we have to go through. The processes we do put in place must be clear, and feel valuable and collaborative.

Building successful communities of practice

4 people on a video call looking at a slide about communities of practice

We’ll do this through our professional communities, who support us to raise professional standards and quality, and create better practices for everyone.

We’re going to give more support to our professions. We want everyone in our teams to join their professional community so they:

  • know which career paths are open to them, and feel supported to progress
  • have the time to learn and grow their skills
  • have ownership of the quality and standards of their profession
  • collaborate and innovate – finding opportunities for common approaches, new platforms, or identifying new skills or practices

Partnerships that cut across the DfE

Finally, in 2021, we’re going to talk more about ‘trusted partnerships’. This is where digital and technology crosscuts with other parts of DfE.

A partnership is where digital and technology teams work within a specific area with a set of services on a longer term basis. The digital and technology professionals in those multidisciplinary teams are also part of their wider professional communities. For example, a designer will get a deep understanding of the design history of a specific area such as helping teachers to find new roles. But they'll also have time to meet with their community, develop their career as a designer and seek opportunities to share and collaborate between and across domains.

Tell us what you think of our strategy

We’ll continue to adapt our strategy as we discover new information, or our context changes.

What do you think? How does it sound? Whatever your role or area of interest or expertise, we welcome your feedback. So please tell us what you think. You can comment below or get in touch on Twitter

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Joe Nutt posted on

    You would be wise to think more deeply about the role data plays in the education sector. It is the currency of the commercial technology sector, not the education sector; which inevitably deals in individuals. Tech sales teams are never the people to listen to when making policy decisions about schools and education. Never.