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Transforming digital services: DEFRA’s rapid response to policy deadlines

Data & AI

Ways of working

Cloud & Platforms

Public Services

4 min read

The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the UK Government department responsible for safeguarding our natural environment, supporting our world-leading food and farming industry, and sustaining a thriving rural economy. DEFRA is a ministerial department that is supported by, and works collaboratively with, over 30 public bodies.

DEFRA’s digital and data transformation strategy aims to improve the standard of their integrated services whilst allowing customers seamless and easy access. DEFRA needed to turn around a new digital, citizen-facing service as well as comprehensive supporting database within a matter of months and decided to partner with esynergy to meet respective timelines.

The new service needed to allow its users to make applications as well as one-off payments and needed to go live within a very short period of time. The team opted for the re-use of existing platforms over building from scratch to meet deadlines and used Gov.UK Forms in combination with Gov.UK Pay.


Having addressed the urgent need for its users to make applications and payments, we were then able to focus on building a platform to deliver a scalable and resilient service (database). The existing legacy database faced challenges in supporting record management, leading users to seek alternative methods outside of the system. There were also concerns that it would not be able to accommodate the anticipated increase in records, with a real risk of all the data being lost. Because of that, the existing database was retired and phase two was the build of a new internal database and front-end to replace the 20-year-old Microsoft Access database. The collaborative effort resulted in a new database being built using Microservice architecture and Kubernetes and hosted on the cloud (Microsoft Azure). Pipelines were also established to ensure code coverage thresholds were met, vulnerabilities were detected, and code quality issues were identified. The new database is now stable and its data secure. To ensure this, the team worked alongside the policy team to ensure the database not only met the immediate needs of its users but also the basis for an entirely new way of working to allow improved efficiencies and a digital platform for citizens and other government agencies.

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Efficiencies realised during the engagement

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Improved the user interface and task flow, reducing the time taken on repetitive tasks

Prevented the duplication of database records

Enabled the accommodation of core changes to records

Replaced uncategorised comments with an ordered audit trail

“It has been an absolute pleasure working with the esynergy team to deliver a time-critical and high profile project. The team have been sympathetic to the wider pressures of the work and always met me with support and understanding. The team have been patient and unruffled by the rapidly changing landscape and made good use of the agile methodology to identify and deliver what was needed. There has been a willingness and flexibility from everyone to get stuck in, often working across usual job roles, to get the job done. Personally I have really appreciated the team going above and beyond on multiple occasions to guide me through the digital processes since I’d had no prior experience in delivering a service of this kind.”

- Index Manager, Business Management

Through agile ways of working, the team were able to deliver this new platform whilst causing no operational disruptions to users during the policy period. As a result, a new database and platform for the ongoing service was built, with industry-recognised software engineering practices. Some of the practices are listed below;

  • Implemented Agile ways of working
  • Ensured user centred design
  • Adhered to GDS prototyping and development toolkit
  • Ensured accessible implementation
  • Automated deployment to lower environments
  • Hosted on the cloud using microservice architecture and Kubernetes
  • Utilized auto-scaling
  • Ensured public source transparency through GitHub
  • Utilised infrastructure and networking alerts
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Value delivered

The new digital service and database have resulted in the following value gains

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Rapid response to meet critical deadlines

The team were able to meet extremely tight and immovable timelines to meet the policy requirements to deliver a digital service within one month and an internal database within three months, whilst working under the pressures of the press spotlight.


Cost savings through efficient resource utilisation

By utilizing Gov.UK Forms no additional cloud costs were incurred throughout the policy period, allowing the teams to deliver a scalable, resilient and fully supported cloud environment.

Scalability assured through rigorous testing

The GOV.UK Forms team conducted thorough performance testing to guarantee a smooth user experience during the policy period, free of technical glitches. This project was the largest GOV.UK Forms implementation to date with over 60,000 applications received and 50,000 certificates issued during the policy period.

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Re-use of existing services

Rather than build new and expensive services, the project has enabled DEFRA to advocate for using available GDS (Government Digital Services) which will ultimately save taxpayers money.

“...What an adventure it has been, I feel like we have all been working together for years not months! Each and everyone of you have played a part in delivering the service and the new Index – under incredible pressure and despite the highly sensitive nature of the policy. We can all be incredibly proud of this achievement and I’m sure that individually and together we have learned so much (some of which we’ve probably already forgotten as things moved so fast!). I know most of you are still in the thick of it deploying the new database, but please do take a moment to reflect on this last phase, and all you have achieved. Personally I feel very lucky to have worked with such skilled, motivated and resilient people and I’m glad we all came together to deliver this difficult service. Huge well done, and thank you!”

- Lead Product Manager, Digital Data and Technology Services (DDTS)

To continue with DEFRA’s strategy of improving the standard of their integrated services whilst allowing customers seamless and easy access, the team is continuing to enhance the functionality of the service, and phase three of the project is currently in discovery. The improved functionality could include; user updates, automation and alerting, and enhanced reporting. To date, the team has conducted a round of research with secondary users that has confirmed their hypothesis that these stakeholders want to have access to the data stored in the database. The functionality has the potential to include;

"We faced immense pressure to deliver a new digital service and database within tight deadlines, all while under intense scrutiny. Thanks to our collaboration with esynergy, we not only met those deadlines but also exceeded expectations. The new platform has not only streamlined our operations but also saved taxpayers' money by utilising existing services. It's a testament to the efficiency and dedication of the teams involved."

- Tim Howard, Deputy Director, Major Projects, Cross-Cutting Technical Services

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