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Delivering technology transformation at UK Export Finance

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UK Export Finance is the UK’s export credit agency. Our mission is to ensure that if a UK export is viable, it won't fail for lack of finance or insurance. For more than 15 years we worked with the same supplier for outsourced IT services. In July 2016 all that changed.

We wanted to talk about how we made the switch: on time, within budget and with the flexibility to align with whatever technology services the Department for International Trade (DIT) establishes in the future.

Small organisation with a big risk appetite

Our existing contract was inflexible and not capable of meeting our rapidly changing business needs. We understood the need to disaggregate the services in line with the Government Digital Service (GDS) Technology Code of Practice and set about applying the principles to the UKEF environment.

We’re a small department, with less than 300 employees, but managing the £20bn+ of liabilities we hold requires sophisticated systems, which are more associated with banking and insurance than government. At the outset it seemed a daunting task: changing IT service provision could have threatened the delivery of our business targets. But we knew successful completion of the project would drive efficiency and enable future growth.

Getting the right team in place

We recruited a technical architect and a project manager with previous experience of this type of transformation within government. They had practical understanding of the GDS approach and brought a wealth of knowledge from previous projects. The team started by looking at user needs to define what we needed and help us find the right solution.

A critical factor in successful delivery was the level of support the project team had from the top. A project board made up of senior people from across the department provided strong governance. The board gave us the freedom to make radical changes while making sure we remained on track to deliver.

In addition, regular updates at the monthly all staff briefings helped raise awareness across the organisation and encouraged questions and debate.

Working with SME suppliers and software owners

With the support of a specialist SME the new service design emerged. The various standard components and services were all procured via Digital Marketplace. There was one notable exception: the core banking system which records and manages UKEF liabilities. This is by far the most complex system we use. Working with the software owners the system was transferred to a Software as a Service (SaaS) basis.

Moving to a cloud-based software distribution model removed complexity and operational risk from the UKEF infrastructure at a stroke. Without the banking system the rest of the landscape looked much more standard.

The eventual move into the Cloud was pretty seamless for the users but a small organisation does not necessarily face less daunting technical challenges! Early work on identity management underpinned the transition into Azure and the move of email to Office 365. Moving into a virtual data centre meant that a number of our older systems had to be upgraded or re-platformed.

We spent a lot of time getting the security model right and getting confidence in our final approach, but the existence of proven Cloud solutions meant implementation was relatively straightforward. The network design went through a number of iterations before settling on a Virtual Private Network (VPN) over the Internet: an arrangement that makes any future change of location very straightforward.

To meet our deadline for a wholesale move into the Cloud, we also needed the support of our incumbent supplier and we decided at a very early stage to make them an integral part of the project. Securing their active cooperation proved crucial when we got to the sharp end of the transformation.

Minimising business impact and finishing on time

The actual transfer to the new Cloud hosted arrangements happened with no significant business impact. The final re-configuration involved moving to Microsoft Azure and Office 365 and, where possible, services were moved without any changes to minimise impact on operations.

There were no general service outages required during normal working hours and we completed the project on time and within budget. Our success owed much to the commitment of the small project team, but also proved that our broader commitment to stakeholder engagement and regular communication on progress had paid off.

Flexibility for the future

Replacing our existing IT supplier with a number of small support organisations, each with different specialisms, brings huge opportunities. From day one the attitude and approach of these SMEs has been noticeably different. Our new suppliers regard UKEF as a valued customer and have already worked collaboratively with us in their own areas of expertise, something teams within large systems integrators can find difficult.

Our new infrastructure-free and modular configuration means we’re extremely well-placed to align with our new department, DIT, and the projected annualised savings are more than 20% before we’ve made any further attempts to optimise.

By really taking the principles of GDS guidance on the best way for government organisations to design, build and buy technology services on board, it is possible to genuinely transform technology provision – even within the smallest department.

Four months on, we are planning a series of changes to help us improve flexibility and explore new ways of collaborating. Now instead of trying to find ways to do things, we’re able propose exciting new services, confident that they can be delivered.

With our service provision switch complete, we’re in a much better position to move forward with ambitious plans that will make a real difference to UK exporters.

Lawrence Nichols is head of IT at UK Export Finance

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