The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) is using the cloud to move away from a reliance on externally managed provision and to embrace digitally-enabled services.
VOA is a specialist organisation that gives the government the valuations and property advice needed to support taxation and benefits across England, Scotland and Wales. It is an executive agency of HMRC, employing more than 3,600 staff, and also provides valuation and surveying services to public sector bodies.
The agency has built a new service – known as Check, Challenge, Appeal (CCA) – that allows businesses to view the full details of their valuations, to check the facts held about their properties, to submit proposed corrections to those facts, and to challenge their valuation if necessary.
The underpinning IT that supports CCA is spread across various technology stacks. Crucially, the VOA has made a decision to implement and then use new technologies outside the managed service route, which has traditionally tended to predominate in the public sector.
VOA is using cloud technology – along with shared HMRC resources, such as the multi-digital tax platform – to host the front-end services that allows business to check valuation details in CCA. These cloud-based services have been integrated with the organisation’s legacy database services, which still reside in secure data centres.
Samuel Hagger, head of IT service management at HMRC VOA Customer Group, says executives at VOA felt moving to the cloud would give the organisation an opportunity to take control of its own IT, rather than relying on a managed service provider:
Central government was looking to create a cloud-first policy, and we had one of these big, heavy back-end systems. So this was a real opportunity for VOA to try and carve its own route. And that's why we wanted to move away from a managed service approach and have our own cloud-based environment that we were able to control ourselves. That meant we could look at future development, and ongoing management, and take all of that on ourselves internally, rather than going through a managed services company.
The content management system (CMS) component of the overall CCA service was procured and built through direct engagement with technology specialist Alfresco. Simon Chrismas, IT service manager at HMRC VOA Customer Group, says VOA worked with Alfresco to ensure the CMS system meets its business requirements, both now and going forward:
We are using Alfresco’s CMS to store customer data, so that’s anything that's submitted through the government platform to support claims, such as a rates bill. The data is submitted through our platform and stored in the CMS. And then we use the service to manage the end-to-end journey for the customer. So at the point that they submit a claim to a property, there’s a process through to the end of that journey, where it updates our legacy systems in the background.
While the Alfresco CMS system plays a key role in that end-to-end process, VOA relies on a combination of technologies to help provide its digital services to both internal and external customers. When it came to selected Alfresco, Hagger explains the chosen CMS had to hook into other cloud and non-cloud platforms:
We were looking for interoperability between different products. So it was important that we're able to work with other products to avoid vendor lock in. That means open source was a big consideration in our decision.
When it came to system implementation, VOA took a staged approach that involved working with Alfresco in a number of ways. Chrismas says his personal involvement was around second-line support, particularly when it came to the early days of service development:
We had a number of Alfresco architects in and they helped us to deliver the service. My involvement at the time was limited – I worked with them to start some processes, offering support and doing daily checks, where I was making sure the system was healthy. So I was starting those implementation processes and I worked closely with the architect team. They were very friendly and, as a supplier, they worked with us closely and drafted what we should be looking for in terms of the service.
Hagger reiterates that it was important that VOA could benefit from interoperability post-implementation, particularly when it came to working with other suppliers and their services. He said working with Alfresco to develop a cloud-based service internally has helped the agency to take a proactive approach to change management:
It was about being able to have that direct relationship with all of our suppliers, so that we can get our requirements across more effectively. These platforms build up iteratively and things change. The approach enabled us to respond to change better than we would have been able to under a managed service contract. And we also weren't overburdened with standard support offerings, which are the things that we possibly may or may not have wanted. So throughout the procurement, and all the way through to go-live, we were in touch with all our suppliers are we created a more organic way of building up the platform.
The supportive approach continued after the system go-live date in April. The support services team worked with Alfresco to ensure there was tight collaboration between both parties, recalls Chrismas:
We started by doing a monthly talk with the customer service manager at Alfresco and we did some on-boarding, too. We just got to know the team at Alfresco, and it was from there that we started to build the relationship and work closely. That produced benefits – not just for us, but it benefited Alfresco too. They knew where we were with the service and what help they could give in terms of improvements.
Chrismas also stressedsit was important that VOA knew the CMS it was using would be both secure and reliable. When it comes to best-practice lessons from implementing the cloud internally, Hagger said the project has proved that public sector IT professionals do not have to rely on managed service provision:
We've moved away from that heavy, clunky managed service approach with these services. The main thing for me is that we’ve proved we can do this and we are capable of controlling our own destiny.