Building and safeguarding for our digital justice platform

Posted on 7th February 2020

woman on laptop

Written by Balaji Anbil, CISO & Head of Digital Architecture, HMCTS

Not long after I joined HMCTS, I shared how we were setting up the Digital Architecture and Cyber Security function and that we were building much of our technology in-house, albeit with the help of different suppliers. Building technology in-house gives us greater control to make changes, and to respond appropriately and quickly. In this blog I’ll provide an overview of our digital architecture, how we build the components, governance approach and the associated benefits.

Strengths in building digital solutions internally

Through building digital solutions in-house, we found that traditional architecture frameworks to be less suitable in managing bespoke software architecture. This is especially relevant to the evolutionary architecture we require for developing citizen facing digital solutions. User research-led design allows us to gather feedback from internal and external stakeholders, which then allows us to adjust our digital design in an iterative fashion. However, this kind of model has not been suitable for pre-built standard off the shelf software packages.  So, one of the first things we came up with, was an innovative architecture method that we internally refer as the “agile architecture lifecycle”.

This method allows us to balance between intentional design and evolutionary aspects of digital systems design by matching to the user needs and building technology solutions in a consistent, coherent fashion, whilst ensuring technology standards are applied. This enables our technical design authority board to review designs in context and be in control of the digital change. A good example to illustrate is that we have utilised this process to define the vision for a potential digital signage solution, to centrally manage the display of key security guidance information and our court listings. This has then led to a proof of concept to test effectiveness and the impact on our court users.

Benefits of open-source based digital solutions

The challenge for us is retaining control while leveraging innovation through open source software components which provide significant advantages.  Firstly, open-source software is developed through public and community collaboration. Secondly, the very nature of public collaboration leads to better quality open-source software. Simply put, as the public reviews the software, it allows experts to critique and create better products.  Most importantly, this allows us and other government departments to be vendor-neutral and has the potential to fundamentally change our cost base.

The main challenge for us was to streamline the open-source technology tools to a standard framework and providing governance routes to manage technical compliance. This is where the agile architecture lifecycle helps us to be consistent when developing designs. We have developed a set of common components such as case management, document storage as well as our entire software delivery engine through the open-source based framework and the agile architecture lifecycle provides the guardrails to consistently iterate and develop new digital services.

Key digital architecture capabilities

We are constantly shaping our architecture to meet the demands of our reform programme and try to keep it flexible enough to incorporate technology innovations. A ‘one size fits all’ architecture approach is unlikely to support such a diverse, complex programme. Instead, we have deployed a flexible, component based, data driven architecture with inspiration from frameworks such as the Zeta architecture construct.  Rather than make large complex changes this architecture approach involves small, incremental changes on a per component basis, allowing us to keep pace with industry best practice.

Six HMCTS foundational architectural capabilities

Our 6 foundational architectural capabilities that make up this platform are:

  1. User Centric, jurisdiction aligned digital solutions

There are more than 30 common digital components aligned to this capability, that are needed to support and underpin multiple reformed services.  The aim is to design and build these capabilities so that they can be re-used across all services rather than being separately designed for each – which will also help with the usability of the system for users. Some have already been developed – Core Case Data, for example, is already supporting online services in divorce and probate; the Common Platform is the underpinning digital services for our reforms in criminal justice. It will deliver a single online system designed to act as a ‘central hub’ enabling the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, legal professionals and our staff to access and share all relevant information about a case.

  1. Department wide cross-cutting enabling services

Cross-cutting services are common and extend across jurisdictions. These services support our courts and tribunals service centre operations for service such as video hearings, scheduling and listing, bulk scanning and printing etc. In a private sector context, these are typically referred as the enterprise services that are common to multiple lines of businesses

  1. Data platform and tools for insight and policy

We are consciously planning the data and management information services that we want our systems to provide and have taken a “data-lake” based foundation which can help us to extend in future. This will support our enterprise performance framework, to measure our performance and allow data to help us continuously improve as well as shape policy.

  1. Robust hosting infrastructure and networks

With a cloud-first approach, we are building our digital capabilities with continuous integration and delivery.  This helps us automate steps in our software delivery process, such as initiating code builds, running automated tests, and deploying software to live environments for public consumption. This capability also includes provisioning of common infrastructure requirements such as standard wifi to courts, IT infrastructure for video hearings, and screens to access and view documents electronically.

  1. Toolset for digital operations and continuous deployment

These are capabilities that allow us to monitor, support and maintain our digital and technology services that will be deployed through the first 4 capabilities (above). These are important tools that will help our IT colleagues to provide timely support to our internal and external users and keep the online services live. These tools support small, incremental changes on a per component basis, allowing us to keep pace with industry best practice.

  1. Cyber safe software engineering

Research[1] suggests that digital businesses can no longer directly own or control all the systems, devices and how users interact with their processes and information.  Our infrastructure, systems and processes must treat “trust” as something dynamic rather than simplistic over-reliance on a technology-based defence. Supported by NCSC guidance our teams have adopted a ‘Protect-Monitor-Defend-Assure’ cyber lifecycle approach and an associated cyber and information assurance governance process. The team have been supporting behind the scene on deploying static and dynamic application testing abilities to our software engineering community and have implemented a cyber security and incident management process to monitor various cyber related challenges.

What’s next?

We are enhancing the standards across the above 6 architecture capabilities to strengthen and support our current digital and technology transformation across our reform programme. We have great talented professionals joining our team and we will be running further recruitment campaigns to seek additional talented individuals to join our digital architecture, cyber and software engineering team. If you want to know more about these roles, please contact me by email.

Originally posted here

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