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I'm not that kind of architect

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When people ask what I do, the conversation goes a bit like this… I’m an architect. Wow, you design buildings. No. So, you make those amazing building models. No. Oh. I model digital technologies. I see… But they don’t see. My interesting architecture anecdote is met with glazed eyes that say, save it for someone who cares. So here I am with you, and my blog about DfT’s digital architecture adventure.

I’m the digital kind

Architecture or Enterprise Architecture is the structure and description of a system or an organisation that allows us to understand, maintain, and develop something new. An architect takes a user or business need and translates it into a blueprint or conceptual diagram that others can use to implement the solution.

Coming from a housing background, I use the analogy of architecture in building services. You wouldn't design and build a property without architecture, blueprints, standards and good design.   Architects often come up with creative solutions using tried and tested techniques, or good re-use.   If you want to build an extension, do a loft conversion, that’s architecture, if you want to add some extra plugs, change the layout of a room, that’s  configuration. I take the same approach and apply the same techniques, replacing buildings with digital technologies.

Architecting Department for Transport

Architects are forward thinkers. We focus on what the future will look like, and how we can use emerging technologies to do things better, smarter and faster. This was front of mind when, almost a year ago, I arrived at DfT as its first Chief Architect in the midst of a major digital transformation programme.

DfT had just merged its IT services and Digital and Open Data divisions into a brand new Digital Service, to focus on customer needs and provide a rich digital and technology experience. It was a positive step forward, but it came with complex legacy architecture that was difficult and costly to maintain. There was an urgent need to modernise and develop a more agile and responsive service to meet the demands of an ever changing government department. This was not a job for me alone. So I set out to recruit DfT’s first Architecture team.

The Architects

Given the enormous challenge, I needed a team who could quickly grasp the big picture, and complexities of the legacy architecture. And as it stands today, most team members are onboard. We’ve got a great balance of skills and experience from diverse public and private sector backgrounds. As well as technology architecture consultants, our team includes an Information Security specialist, a Digital Data and Technology Policy Advisor and Technical Architects, we’ll soon have a Data Architect.

One of the things we're working on is defining a framework for how to create and use architecture. We’ve taken guidance from industry best practice like the GDS Technology Code of Practice, GDS architecture approach and principles. Our framework will include a Digital and Technology Strategy supported by architecture principles, standards and policy.

This approach to architecture is about providing parameters for colleagues to work within, rather than harsh technical controls.  In my experience, people will bypass controls if they’re too fixed, and with today’s cloud world and loads of commodity Software as-a-Service (SaaS) apps out there, we can’t rule with an iron rod.  We don’t want to be seen as the internal police, ruling with a carrot or stick - I prefer governance with a "small g".

We’ve created a Digital Design Authority (DDA), which is a formal board made up of key stakeholders across Digital Service.  This board reviews solution designs mainly at a concept level, and occasionally high level.  To supplement this board and to prevent overbearing governance, the architects have the remit to approve design iteratively within projects, as long as they do not design the solution themselves. If there’s a desire for architecture change that goes outside of our parameters, the requests go back to the DDA – in effect we're managing approval by exception.

Eyes wide open?

Our approach is working and the architecture team are in demand. Among other things, we’re supporting citizen-facing projects delivered to Local Authorities and utility companies. Our Digital Architect, provided a consultative and advisory service, working together with the Sponsor, Project lead, and delivery partner during the Alpha phase of this project. This project has just passed its first GDS service assessment. It’s been a fantastic collaborative approach, and for me shows the value of Architecture.

It’s been a great start to my tenure as DfT’s first Chief Architect and we’ve recruited a fantastic team. I’m excited for us and the value we can bring to this department.

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