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It’s all about people: DVLA delivers real transformation

Over the last two years the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) have been preparing for a huge change. Last Friday, the Partners Achieving Change Together (PACT) contract closed, bringing in-house the technology team that keep DVLA’s services running.

The fact that no-one outside DVLA noticed it happening, and that their services continued to work without a hitch is a testament to the success of the switchover. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one that shows what digital transformation really means. We’ve been saying it for years: it’s more than just websites. It goes so much deeper.

The DVLA IT estate had been an outsourced function for 22 years. The PACT contract itself was over a decade old, and had been through several hands since it was first specced out in the late ‘90s. It effectively put all of DVLA’s technology provision into a third party’s hands. All of the onsite technology, all the service maintenance, and all the digital delivery was handled by a large IT company.

The contract effectively turned the DVLA’s technology team into an assurance team, making sure the contract and services were delivered to specification ... but not much else.

During the last parliament, DVLA recognised that the PACT contract would be a major blocker to their digital transformation plans. They began talking with Liam Maxwell and the Government Technology team about what exiting the contract might look like, while using the exemplars to kickstart building in-house digital delivery teams.

In 2013 Iain Patterson, CTO of DVLA (on loan from GDS) began investigating what that contract consisted of:

It’s fair to say it’s morphed into lots more things. It meant anything you want to do in the IT world, or IT people, had to go through that contract. Every item you delivered was treated as a contract change, making the contract more complex and harder to unpick should you want to leave.

DVLA faced a choice: continue investing money in a contract that allowed them to maintain their current setup, or bring those teams in-house to kickstart the transformation of DVLA’s services.

The board decided at the start of the year to start insourcing.

It all comes down to planning

Fundamentally, PACT was about people: the IT professionals working to provide services to and on behalf of DVLA, many of them based in and around the DVLA’s offices in Swansea.

Leaving PACT would mean bringing many of those people in-house through a Transfer of Undertakings (TUPE), a legal mechanism that would leave DVLA unsure about the final numbers of people coming over to them from the suppliers until the morning of the switch.

This risk necessitated building a small team to handle service operations in the unlikely event that key team members wouldn’t come over. Fortunately, the lead-time meant that the emergency team were assembled and briefed well in advance. Preparation really was everything. Iain and the team had to negotiate contractual wrangling through the final weeks, while engagement with the supplier-side staff continued.

Success boiled down to knowing what was in the contract well enough that the team could accurately plan the transition well enough that, on the day, users don’t notice anything.

What this enables is huge

In-house, the potential for culture change is massive. A few hundred new DVLA staff will now be empowered to change the product they work on, so they can meet user needs instead of business needs – the kind of changes that wouldn’t have been commercially viable a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, existing DVLA staff will be able to learn from how private sector teams operate, while having actual colleagues to call on to effect change (instead of just ringing a supplier helpline). DVLA has started up partnerships with local universities as well as Swansea’s TechHub, so that as the newly empowered teams begin to ask for training and external expertise, there’s a framework to support it.

But ultimately, it’s the technology that will start changing the fastest. The team are looking to move aggressively away from ‘Drivers90’, the 25-year-old mainframe system still underpinning major motoring services. It allows DVLA to become a truly modern, agile organisation, empowered to improve services to users quickly and cost-effectively.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a new ecosystem of digital suppliers spring up across government. That’s something the DVLA team can now take advantage of, commissioning small teams of experts to build specific tools, and providing a base of companies that their staff can flow to and from as new opportunities open up.

A landmark in transformation

Change like this, on this kind of scale, is a first in government. The contract was worth some £230 million a year, which is money DVLA can now invest in their own teams to genuinely improve services instead of just keeping the lights of legacy technology on. They’ve taken on more than 400 IT roles and 300 contracts to support 65 services it offers users every day.

This is great news. DVLA are taking charge of their agency and the direction of its technology and although they led this in sourcing they have been quick to acknowledge that they benefited from support across government. They utilised advice and expertise from the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and GDS in particular to drive the project forward and remove the blockers which are inevitable when delivering change in the public sector. That’s a model the rest of government should learn from.

Outsourcing has, for far too long, been seen as a way to mitigate risk – ‘If the service doesn’t work then it’s not our fault, it’s theirs!’. That’s a negative way of thinking, and it can damage people’s relationship with the state.

If you’re a user and you can’t renew your vehicle tax, or renew a passport, or do any of the things you need to do with government, the chances are it’s government you blame and not a company off the M4 corridor.

Government always carries the risk. We owe it to users to take pride in the things we build, build them well and get them working.

Oliver Morley, Iain Patterson and the rest of the team should be incredibly proud. DVLA has grown, not just in numbers, but in confidence. There’s a community of people in Swansea who are delivering services and can now start improving them. I’m looking forward to see what they do next.

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Transcript 1

In September DVLA brought all their IT teams in-house.

Alun Williams, Head of Application and Infrastructure Services, DVLA

DVLA historically has outsourced all of its IT operations as a completely bundled function.

Tim Daley, Project Director, Exit, DVLA

Gradually over the last 12 to 18 months we’ve been growing towards the day we take on all of that for ourselves. So we run all of the operations, manage all of the change, build our own software. All of it becomes our responsibility.

It gives them the freedom to build better services.

Alun Williams

By in-sourcing, it gives us freedom to make the small changes that maybe we weren’t allowed to do before because they weren’t commercially viable; it allows us to be more aggressive with the transformation portfolio. We still have some legacy systems; it allows us to look at very aggressively moving off that, without having all of those layers of commercial barriers between us and the people actually doing the work.

This is a new model for government.

Iain Patterson, Chief Technology Officer, DVLA

Every government department has to look at, one, the commercial arrangements they have already in place, to what sort of models they want to actually incorporate later on, whilst still trying to bring the intelligence, if you like, the capabilities back in-house. You can’t beat having your own information, your awareness and control over your technology landscape, and making sure the commercial pieces fit together in the right way.

Bringing staff in-house will bring a new culture to DVLA.

Tim Daley

It’s not simply a migration and on that weekend, boom, everybody becomes DVLA staff and we swap over. We’ve been building towards that for a long time.

Iain Patterson

This could be anything between 270 and 320 people that could be coming into our organisation. I think the main thing here to remember is not the amount of people that come in, it’s the cultural change that is going to happen.

Alun Williams

Everybody’s voice is important and I think that message, it was a little difficult at first to get them to believe it, I guess, but now that they’ve started working with us and they’ve started seeing how things are going to work, they’re actually quite excited about the prospect of coming over, which makes it much more reassuring from my point of view, because now we’ve got people coming to us and saying, “We’d love to do this; we can’t wait until we can do this when we come over.”

Transcript 2

DVLA have transformed how they run their technology.

Leigh Allen, Live Service Lead, DVLA

In the last two years we’ve been looking at transitioning away from a large supplier base into an in-house service to start that transformation of our legacy services and onto more flexible, adaptive systems.

Paul Aymes, Quality Engineering Lead, DVLA

It’s a huge change for my team. The way it has historically worked is, because of the constraints of the PACT contract itself, Fujitsu had a test team, IBM and Concentrix had a test team, and then DVLA had a user acceptance test team, so it became a very convoluted mechanism, especially when you had projects that were infrastructure, application, a huge amount of UAT.

So, actually consolidating that into one team, which is what we’re doing after ‘Exit’, into one function is a massive opportunity for us.

It’s a chance to work in a new way.

Paul Aymes

The 80 or so people across the organisations that are involved in tests now see this as an opportunity to almost apply for a new organisation; it needs to feel clean and fresh. I can’t really mandate to people: “This is how you will work in an agile team”.

We’re making sure that people who have experience in working with agile teams, and understanding those disciplines and the opportunity to influence change actually buddy up. As a forerunner to that, people are asking me questions of “How do they do it?”, which is good. I’m making sure that we have almost like sponsors within the team actually who can influence change.

This is a new model for government technology.

Leigh Allen

I think this is a ground-breaking change in terms of an organisation being responsible for its own destiny and having its own fate in its hands, with its own people.

There’s not many opportunities of this nature that come along, and a lot of people are very keen, both from the supplier side and from the DVLA side, to make this the biggest success that it can be.

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  1. Comment by Maggie Collins posted on

    DVLA's IT group was outsourced to EDS in 1994. Pleased to see that the Agency has reversed that decision - though no solace to those who reluctantly had to move away from Swansea or take redundancy.

  2. Comment by Chris posted on

    Sounds great and similar to an option we are exploring. Is this In-house team directly employed (civil servants) or contractors.