The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is often held up as one of the government’s greatest success stories when talking about digital transformation. And that’s because it has already managed to achieve some of the key things that other government departments are only just now beginning to consider or are still struggling with.
For example, the DVLA has managed to successfully negotiate itself out of some lengthy outsourcing deals, it has in-sourced its IT capability and it is now beginning to consider how it can shift off of its legacy architectures.
That’s not to say that the organisation is safe or has completed its transition, it’s just that it has made a good amount of progress compared to others.
I got to sit down with the DVLA’s technology lead, John Bramer, at this week’s Think Cloud for Digital Government conference in London, for which diginomica was a key media partner.
Bramer explained that three years ago the organisation realised that it needed to change how it operated, in order to make changes more quickly. He said:
We can go back to just three years ago. DVLA ran its IT systems through major integrators for at least the last two decades. It’s a very old, complex, tightly coupled, integrated, spaghetti and meatball infrastructure. Which means that change is very slow, because a change somewhere can affect something else.
It’s very slow because of the processes that are associated with making a change through the prime contractor, through secondary contractors and all the agreements that needed to be made. As well as a whole cottage industry around process, in terms of change itself. Nothing was agile.
At this time DVLA had a change of CTO, Iain Patterson, who joined the organisation from the Government Digital Service. Even more pertinent, at the same time DVLA was gearing up to relet its outsourcing contracts. Bramer said:
Patterson’s vision was very different, DVLA started to look at how it wanted to run its IT going forward. We intercepted a major project that was going on in the insurance industry and shifted its focus a little bit, which became View Driving Licence, which allowed citizens to view their licence online and to share their details for hiring cars, that kind of thing.
A different kind of approach
The View Driving Licence service was handled very differently to projects of the past at DVLA. Bramer explained that historically the organisation would have spoken with IBM or Fujitsu and worked through defining the requirements up front, which he said would have been a “significant navel-gazing exercise”.
Instead, DVLA set out to see if it could do things in a more agile way, with the help of the Government Digital Service. Bramer said:
We engaged with the business, the business was brought in. We had help from an SME that came to support us and put together an agile project to be done in a different way. That project took quite a long time, which doesn’t feel very agile, but we had a lot of barriers to overcome.
We needed to integrate with the existing systems, so working out how that happened took a long time. Data sovereignty was a big issue for us, we have some very sensitive data within our databases.
So we were originally planning to deploy View Driving Licence in our own data centres. The time it was going to take us to do that certainly became a problem for us, because we really wanted to get the thing out there. The only way we could really move and do it quickly enough was to engage with a cloud supplier to help us do it. We went through the G-Cloud, looked at a number of different suppliers, and we chose one that was able to act very quickly and we could do things on self-service in terms of bringing machines up. We went with Skyscape.
Bramer said that the data-focused nature of the project, in terms of moving to the cloud, making data available online and creating the ability to share data with other industries was “severely challenging”. He quipped that he spent a lot of time ‘buying his accreditor coffee’.
One of the most impressive aspects of the DVLA’s journey is that it has managed to in-source a significant
amount of its IT capability - something that is troubling most departments in Whitehall. However, the DVLA completed this in September last year, having acquired a lot of the engineers, architects and IT operational staff from its suppliers.
However, Bramer added that a lot of the people at DVLA still need to be up-skilled in the latest digital tools and approaches, which will help in the development of new services. He said that it can also be challenging to recruit people that are in demand to an organisation that is based outside of London.
We are building our new services on open platforms and open software. The journey to get to where we have a capability to build and deploy those things is an arduous one. Trying to persuade people to come and live at the end of the M4 in Swansea is a bit of a challenge. But we have got some good resources that we have started to cross-train. We have some framework contracts in place with some SMEs that are supplying us with resources. And we are also actively recruiting as well, but it’s a fairly uphill battle.
But being in Swansea isn’t all bad, as Bramer believes that once people have made the jump, they’re more likely to stick around.
Being in Swansea helps in terms of retaining people, it doesn’t help in terms of capturing them in the first place. We aren’t the only large IT operation in south Wales, there are a number of organisations along the M4 corridor. We do have a lot of people that have left over time, there are people that just want to settle down and be with their families, rather than travel. Once we get people, we tend to be able to keep them. It’s the getting them that’s tricky.”
Our risks are really about losing people. There is a growing demand for key skills. We’ve lost a couple of people, not many. Our biggest challenges in terms of retention are going to be around civil service terms and conditions and that the way that we deal with IT. We don’t have an IT profession that recognises that some skills are in short supply and puts the right T&Cs in place to encourage them to do the kind of work we need them to do.
The next phase
Whilst DVLA has managed to in-source its IT capability and is now creating some very useful online services for users, it’s still restrained by its legacy architecture and systems. The next phase is for the organisation to move off of these and is currently in the process of thinking through how this can be done.
Our priorities now are to enhance and build the capability to deploy new services. To ensure that our staff are engaged in the new ways of doing things as well. We don’t want people to feel left behind, because they will leave. We are also starting a journey of beginning to transform some of our core services. But the digital services that we’ve deployed are predominantly citizen business or citizen facing services that have to then integrate with the legacy systems. We are starting the journey of transforming off the legacy systems. That will be really exciting, we are just in discovery now.
We do have some initial ideas, but it’s a very long conversation. We are disaggregating the functions. Broadly what we are doing is making the business functions more atomic. We are looking at disaggregation of data. That also potentially helps from a data privacy perspective. If we can host pieces of data in different places, that makes it less risky from an aggregation perspective I guess.
The hardest part that I’m not really sure we have got to grips with yet is the interim integration with the legacy services. I’ve been there before elsewhere, it’s really, really hard stuff. We’ve got a clear idea of what the architecture is likely to look like, at least in terms of going into alpha. Beyond that, I guess we will learn as we go along.