Despite being ahead of the curve in adopting new technologies, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) needed to vastly expand and accelerate the pace of change when the COVID-19 outbreak struck in order to deliver on its portfolio of critical responsibilities without disruption.
Thanks to a forward-looking approach to technology, DAERA was a step ahead of new ways of working even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since May 2018, when the department moved its headquarters to Ballykelly, it has used cutting edge technology for internal communications between sites, negating unnecessary travel between sites which has freed up valuable staff time, provided a significant ongoing cost saving to DAERA and is assisting DAERA to deliver impressive carbon reduction results .
This successful culture shift to more video conferencing and remote meetings meant the department was well-placed to handle the problems brought by COVID-19. Geraldine Devine, Head of Information Systems Unit, says the challenge lay in how to rapidly accelerate this technological change in the face of mounting demand.
Speed was crucial in delivering this, as the department was working on key major projects including deadline-critical Brexit applications to the EU and ensuring the smooth operation of the food supply chain.
DAERA needed to continue critical business as usual during these unprecedented times, connect with staff, engage with stakeholders and ensure senior management could continue to meet and plan the department’s response. The senior management team (Gold Command) had to meet remotely every day.
With more and more staff working from home, demand for video access was putting pressure on the network.
And Permanent Secretary Denis McMahon, who places a high value on staff engagement, wanted regular ‘face time’ sessions with everyone working from home to keep them fully updated.
Under the Northern Ireland Public Sector Shared Network contract, BT worked closely with IT Assist and DAERA to set the department up with Cisco’s WebEx solution, a suite of cloud-based collaboration tools, to meet the fast-growing demand for better joined-up communications.
The solution included a webinar platform WebEx Events, video conferencing functionality through WebEx Meetings and an instant messaging service, Jabber.
In terms of meeting an urgent need, Geraldine Devine summed up what it meant: “There was absolutely no way we could have kept the department going without this technology.”
WebEx Events enabled the Permanent Secretary to broadcast a fortnightly webcast to staff called DAERA News and Views. DAERA used the online polling and interactive Q and A feature of this service to get feedback from staff. And for those who couldn’t tune in live, events were recorded for them to view later.
WebEx Meetings and the Jabber messaging service allowed people working from home to chat quickly and stay constantly in touch. In addition, the online meeting facility meant staff were able to have video calls with a wide range of external stakeholders, right across the agri-food sector in a way that hadn’t been possible before.
With the challenge of establishing and implementing the service within days rather than weeks, BT worked very closely with IT Assist and senior leaders in Cisco to deliver the optimum service to meet the department’s urgent needs. Gaining timely access like this to strategic-level specialist expertise within Cisco serves as an example of the added value that the Public Sector Shared Network service can bring to public sector bodies.
The Permanent Secretary, Denis McMahon, says: “WebEx has been an invaluable way for DAERA teams to stay connected in these challenging times. An average of 900 staff tune in every other week for updates from the Senior Team and feedback on the value of these has been very positive.
“As well as large scale events, smaller teams are using this technology to collaborate with each other and our stakeholders. These connections have enabled work streams to be fully operational at a time when the majority of our people are working from home.
“I have been very impressed with how quickly DAERA has adapted to this way of working and would definitely say that webinars have become a new kind of business as usual.”
The WebEx solution helped in four critical areas, says Geraldine Devine.
- Leadership – enabling the senior management team to meet regularly from home during a crucial time.
- Reassurance – webcasts from the Permanent Secretary kept staff regularly updated and reassured them that the department was handling things.
- Stakeholder engagement – The WebEx platform helped DAERA liaise with key stakeholders and travel was not required.
- Staff engagement – WebEx has allowed DAERA’s 3000 staff to remain connected remotely throughout the pandemic, not only facilitating critical communications but ensure staff are not isolated and have the required connectivity to deliver DAERA’s business
“Through the pandemic,” she says, “we’ve probably been more connected as a department than ever before. Jabber alone has over 2,000 users a day.”
She adds: “It’s paid back a million percent. We had a plan in place and COVID pushed it to happen more quickly. It’s totally invaluable.”
The department is now looking to the future. Geraldine is leading Technology, Innovation and Culture Group within DAERA to examine how they can further support the department and make even more use of the technology they have introduced.