Government Digital Service (GDS)
How the FSA moved everything to the cloud
How the Food Standards Agency updated and moved the whole organisation to the cloud.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) experienced extensive damage after the York data centre flooded and the London one was blown up during a fire. The FSA had to save their damaged equipment and decided to move all data and hosting services to the cloud so this could never happen again. They also decided to update the organisation’s technology and ways of working to get the most out of using the cloud.
The FSA is a small non-ministerial department, operating from multiple sites across England, Wales and Northern. They employ a wide range of professions and experts, as well as in-the-field inspectors for meat, dairy and wine. Their main aims are to make sure:
- food is safe
- food is what it says it is
- consumers can make informed choices about what to eat
- consumers have access to an affordable diet, now and in the future
The FSA wrote their IT strategy based on a series of principles. The main principle is that they look for the commodity services and off-the-shelf technology products to meet their needs first. Any different or bespoke approaches are done by exception only. The FSA used Wardley mapping to better understand their existing setup and what they needed for the future, before using this to identify any exceptions they needed to make. The FSA used the Government Cloud First policy as one of their principles.
This strategy aimed to solve issues with their outsource service contract. It was a 5-year contract that the FSA extended by one year to gain time to plan and enact their strategy.
The old contract consisted mainly of a traditional managed-service contract, but as is common, the FSA also had some technology and services they had acquired or built themselves. The supplier was meeting all their contracted service level agreements, but users did not recognise it as a great service. Users found responses to issues slow and expensive, and the whole system was not flexible enough to meet their evolving needs. User needs were not fully considered when the contract was agreed. As the FSA investigated the extent of their technology estate they discovered forgotten legacy items and files stored in the wrong place within the FSA’s records management service as well.
The first thing to do was to understand what the services were, document them and unravel the old contract. What the FSA aimed to do was to take back control. They wanted to have a series of modern contracts they could align to application support, end user compute, cloud services and comms/connectivity.
Two major events changed and accelerated the IT strategy. In April 2015, an underground electrical fire broke out in Holborn, which caused failures in some services. On Boxing Day 2015, flooding in York caused significant damage to the FSA data centre and business services.
These events meant there was a good reason to recover and move the FSA data and services to the cloud..
Recovering services and bringing them back up gave the FSA a better understanding of how the services were set up and worked.
The FSA held firmly to their founding principles and kept the purchasing strategy as simple as possible.
Planning all the things
This was a huge modernisation process. The FSA ran several projects simultaneously to make sure they were not only up and running again after the data centre disaster, but had better technology for their staff, improved services and security, and better disaster resilience.
Working out requirements
The biggest challenge the FSA had was unravelling their current services and working out what they actually needed before going to market.
While working out their requirements, the FSA also went through their old contract to work out which of the current business applications they needed to lift and shift to a new environment. As they unpicked the data from the services, technology and contracts, they better understood their technology estate. It also became the opportunity to review and update their API strategy in line with the GDS API technical and data standards.
Choosing a supplier
Once the FSA had their requirements sorted, both choosing suppliers and onboarding them was relatively straightforward. They chose a shorter 3-year contract to give themselves more flexibility about moving suppliers in the future. One important decision was the choice of platform. Office 365 was chosen because:
- the FSA had done an evaluation of Office 365 compared to Google and there was little difference between them for what the FSA needed
- the move to another supplier would be too disruptive with no significant benefits to make the disruption worthwhile
- it fitted with other transformation work underway across the organisation
Changes for services and staff
At the same time, the FSA was replacing their website and intranet and rationalising their estate by moving offices and downsizing.
The FSA also ran a project that let staff choose their preferred device from a selection. Staff also had the choice of different employment contracts - office based, home based, and office/home combination based. The FSA created ‘User technology reps’ roles from within the user teams to help with:
- staff engagement
- staff feedback
- improved comms to create a ‘buzz’ around the changes and drive enthusiasm for what the new technology could do
Other areas the FSA tackled included:
- resolving some of their skills gaps by employing staff from the supplier to work as civil servants in the FSA
- developing different ways of communicating with businesses
The FSA strategy did not specify any particular suppliers. They aimed to have “at least 1” cloud hosting supplier which would allow them to have a flexible number over time, depending on their needs. The FSA designed the contract so that they’re not locked into anything and can move between suppliers.
Keeping things moving
The FSA made clear communications with the staff and users a priority and made sure their comms were, and remain, frequent, accurate and honest. This comms approach meant there was a more positive response to all the changes, even if things got difficult.
The FSA took an integrated approach to rolling out the upgrades by:
- selecting delivery partners to help with the skills and capabilities gaps
- buying in some technical skills, rather than training staff on everything
- training staff to be the decision makers so they could oversee technical staff bought in
- tracking progress and performance by using stats and analytics
The FSA did not replace everything all at once. They worked on a prioritisation strategy to identify which technology needed replacing the soonest and which technology they would replace in the future.
Things that went well
The FSA’s strategy is not to have a single supplier, be supplier agnostic and have flexible contracts to avoid lock-in. When implementing this strategy, the FSA found it simpler to use one supplier at a time, but keep contracts flexible so the FSA can more easily change suppliers.
Although the FSA initially thought changing contracts every 2-3 years would be hard, their strategic decisions on which contracts to change, and why, made the process much simpler. The FSA only negotiates new contracts if there are real benefits and avoided renegotiating contracts if there was no gain.
The FSA found that it becomes easier with each renewal, as it is easier to decide what stays and goes and what’s new. They said:
“You can see what parts of the contract you just are not using, and stop duplicating other parts and wasting money.”
The FSA does not always use 3-year contracts. Where technology is more stable and unlikely to change, or need to be changed, the contracts are longer.
Other benefits of upgrading
The benefits of taking this approach mean the FSA has made:
- overall savings of 10%, this includes savings such as for the IT budget and equipment
- a flexible business model which meant staff could easily work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic
- a more resilient infrastructure with better security, quicker repairs, and efficient equipment distribution
The FSA found that while the new contracts were flexible, they did not make the most of them at first. The solution was to develop the capability in the FSA team and actively manage the contracts. This has resulted in a cultural change of continuous learning and embracing an evolving way to approach contract management.
The main lessons are:
- to make sure the organisation is familiar with their contracts so you can use all the elements
- make the most of the benefits
- make sure you’re not paying too much or for things twice
Knowledge of what went into the contracts earlier meant the FSA might have been further on in the transformation. However, there has to be a learning curve so it’s inevitable there are issues.
What the FSA has now is a flexible and evolving set of contracts and infrastructure.
The organisation now has better resiliency and their data is safer.
They are still optimising their new infrastructure and progressively making their cloud services more efficient. Older apps and services are gradually being replaced or removed.
The FSA is more transparent as an organisation to staff and users, provides more choice and has more awareness of difficulties.
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