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UCAS secure their place at the top

UCAS become the latest organisation to have the performance of their IT Department accredited by NCC, Michael Dean investigates.

The university sector has hardly been out of the headlines recently with a constant flow of stories about public spending cuts and their impact. Whilst these stories have been featured in the media, UCAS, the world’s largest central admission service for higher education has been quietly and efficiently processing the 2m applications it receives annually (from 0.5m applicants), for places at UK universities. These efforts are not going un-rewarded however as the Information Services Department at UCAS has now been recognised as one of the best in country with the award of Accredited IT Department status from the National Computing Centre.

UCAS which is based at a single site in Cheltenham and employs 400 staff also processes applications for post-graduate places, graduate teacher training and the music Conservatoires. The Information Services department (IS) is headed up by IT Director Paul Featonby who is ably supported by Noeline Best, UCAS Information Security Officer. “We are structured in a fairly typical way. “ says Noeline, “What is unique is that we are totally open plan, so IS staff mix with the rest of the business on a day-to-day basis – this promotes a partnership with the business with a great degree of interaction and understanding. This environment helps IS deal with their challenges – maintaining critical web services 24/7, multiple fixed deadlines, an increasing number of applicants, the peaks and troughs of the academic year, maintaining data integrity and security and dealing with multiple stakeholders.

Nevertheless UCAS are forward thinking and the IS department has been behind new initiatives to communicate more effectively with their audiences through an innovative iPhone app and engagement with social networking sites. In fact, their forward thinking approach led them to undertake an independent assessment of their IT services from the National Computing Centre.

“We felt that IS’ services would stack up well against other IT functions and saw NCC’s IT Department Accreditation as a good vehicle to benchmark our performance nationally.” said Noeline, “We also knew that we weren’t perfect in everything! So, the output of the IT Department Accreditation, the Action Plan, would help us focus our resources in the right areas. We felt we knew where improvement was required, but it is very useful to have that confirmed by an independent expert, so you know you are going down the right track.”

Paul is very happy with the outcome, “I am delighted that the Information Services staff are to be recognized for work done well, but we won’t be complacent. The Action Plan will help us focus our continuous improvement programme. Now we know we are up there with the best, we have the incentive and the framework to help us stay there.”

The NCC IT Department Accreditation Scheme (ITDA) is an independent appraisal of the performance of an IT department, designed to drive business performance through a common framework for continuous improvement. The assessment scheme which underpins the NCC ITDA examines an IT department’s performance against 110 common controls, enabling the IT department to compare and understand its own strengths and weaknesses. The ITDA is also an accreditation scheme, so those IT departments who score well will also be awarded with a recognised accreditation to the NCC Standard. The ITDA provides a framework for Business Management, Business Direction, Business or Service Generation, Delivery and Operations and Customer Relationships. All organisations who undertake an ITDA also receive a bespoke Action Plan which helps them focus their continuous improvement programmes.

“The Assessment process was straightforward”, continued Noeline, “and there was plenty of support and guidance available from NCC. I would advise other organisations going through the ITDA to take time at the self assessment stage. A bit of effort here will reap rewards on Assessment Day.”

“At UCAS we are used to working closely together, but the ITDA provided a structured approach that we used to facilitate experience sharing and discuss what we were doing and how it could be improved. And because the ITDA is comprised of 5 elements we were easily able to undertake the preparatory work in digestible chunks.

In order to provide a true independent and representative view of the performance of the IT department, NCC also undertake a survey of customers perceptions, the results of which are factored into the final decision to award accreditation.

The Assessment Day itself was tough, but the preparation paid off and the results from the customer satisfaction survey vindicated Noeline’s view. The result was a recommendation for accreditation to the National Computing Centre standard.

All ITDAs are moderated by NCC to ensure fairness, and the Moderator was pleased to confirm the Assessors recommendation, “UCAS have demonstrated an impressive and holistic approach to deploying best practice. Our Assessor was particularly impressed with the IT department's ability to quickly provide the evidence to support their claims. Whilst overall performance was very good, there is still scope for continuous improvement and we will look for this at the annual Light Touch Reviews”.

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