The DVLA chief executive explains to Civil Service World how the agency has been transformed into a digital business, and what Whitehall can learn from its base in Swansea
When the government unveiled its much-awaited clean air strategy last month, one pledge stood out – the commitment to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040.
The ambitious policy goal is intended to encourage drivers to use electric cars and vans, and while the proposal was broadly welcomed, it raised a number of questions. How would motorists respond to the use of battery power, and would the technology itself be ready for widespread adoption? Will the UK’s infrastructure – across roads, energy and vehicle production – be able to respond in time?
Some of the answers lie, perhaps surprisingly, in the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s strategic plan, which sets out the agency’s priorities to 2020. One of the key proposals in the document, published in March, is to create a hub for digital motoring to both solidify the agency’s shift towards online services and open up new possibilities across government.
Chief executive Oliver Morley told CSW that the online hub could form the basis of a system that will allow car owners to charge their electric vehicles at battery points – likely a key part of the post 2040 motoring world. The hub will be based on the DVLA’s two key motoring registers – of drivers in the UK and vehicles in Britain – which makes it, Morley says, a unique opportunity to provide “a really exciting mix of capabilities for government”.
He paints a possible picture of the digital future for motorists. “If you think in the long term, someone using an electric charging point would use their phone, access the driving licence they might have on the mobile phone, and ‘blip’ it to go back to DVLA for charging. Then we can be an independent arbiter and be able to farm that back out to the owner of the charging point.
“The same would go for car hire – the car hire company is already essentially verifying the licence against our driving licence service via the check code, if you combine that with other aspects of charging and also tax, it becomes a really interesting mix of capabilities.”
As well as opening up the potential for electric charging points, the hub, crucially, would be able to quickly react to shifts across what Morley calls two of the most exciting industries – technology and automotive.
“We don’t know what the future is but what I would say is that being able to create solutions around drivers and vehicles, for industry and for individuals, is really where we need to be. We need to be in a space where we can innovate, but also provide ministers with options from a policy perspective, because if we don’t it will be a huge opportunity missed.”
The development of the hub is only made possible by the DVLA’s digital transformation laid out in its previous plan, including the 2015 move to bring the agency’s IT services in-house in a bid to improve provision.
This shift has allowed the DVLA, which is famously based in one site in Swansea, to be more agile, says Morley. It was a key turning point towards a new future. According to the plan, overall digital take up for DVLA services is 92.3%, up from 55% when Morley joined in 2013, boosted by a range of new services in recent years.
Taking digital provision in house came after what he acknowledges was “a difficult period of time” for the agency. “There was a huge amount of pressure from [then Cabinet Office minister] Francis Maude and others [from 2010] to change the way the business of DVLA was run. We had abolition of the tax disc [which took place in 2014] and the introduction of direct debit within a very short timescale, and we also had abolition of the [driving licence] counterpart in 2015.
“We took out these massive pieces of regulatory stuff over a short period time [and] brought our IT entirely in house as well.”
The transition was assisted by the Government Digital Service, the Cabinet Office agency intended to spread the digital gospel in Whitehall. Although Morley is keen to stress that the transformation “has been a DVLA story since 2013-14” when GDS stepped back as the DVLA had the capability to deliver its plans independently, he acknowledges the help it provided prior to this, and says that the DVLA and GDS “think the same way about technology”.
“GDS were effectively a consultancy – they are an interesting consultancy and they had controls as well, but I would think the best way to put it is 'trusted partners', and that is a really important part of what GDS does. When GDS remembers the customer then they can be brilliant.”
Asked if he means they do not always do this, Morley says, “I’m not going to make any further comment”, before adding he had always stuck to GDS’ founding mantra of Trust. Users. Deliver.
“That is a great thing and it coincided absolutely with what I was trying to achieve at DVLA, and I would say we have held absolutely religiously that approach," he says.
“Our motto is Simpler, Better, Safer, and it is absolutely about getting the customer experience as simple and as good as possible and making sure it is the right vehicle and drivers on the road. I think that is something that we always hold to.”
As a result, the agency is now in “control of our own destiny”, he adds, and the next three years is about “really taking advantage” of the tech switch. As well as the moves to the digital motoring hub, the DVLA has pledged to standardise how long it takes to respond to customer inquiries – both online and off – to five working days, while also delivering a 34% saving for the Treasury.
Morley on... the impact of pay restraint
Morley reiterated his concerns about the impact of the continuing 1% cap on civil service pay increases, where he has been among the highest profile government figures to warn publicly about the effect of pay restraint on recruitment and retention.
He tells CSW that the government may not need to be top payers for digital staff, but should be in the second quartile for salaries to keep top people, and that the agency has worked with the Treasury to get to a point where it is “sustainable on pay”.
“The 1% [pay cap] is obviously a longer term challenge, and it is not just about technologists. A lot of the differences in pay are making recruitment quite challenging.”
As well as in technology, Morley says that it is now becoming a challenge to recruit across areas including finance, communications, design, and senior operational roles.
This reflects the “economic reality of 1% pay versus 2.9% inflation”, he adds. “We can go so far in terms of creating an environment that is great for really good people and I think we do a really good job of that. In the DVLA, we create an environment where people want to stay and the work-life balance is important as well, but from a competitiveness point of view, we are basically in a position where people seek promotion where they may not seek promotion for other reasons, the only reason they’re really looking for it is pay, and we understand that."
How much of these changes can be replicated elsewhere in government, where departments are not based in a single site and where policy can more often muscle in on delivery plans?
“I think a lot of it is and you will see shades of it elsewhere. In somewhere small like DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport], there is really significant transformation, and you can see elements of it in other big departments as well," says Morley.
“I think the unique part is probably not necessarily Swansea but there is that single location that I think really helps. If you are spread very thinly, and if it is not that clear where your organisation is going, it is going to be quite difficult to get real cultural change, and real operational change, and that is probably the challenge for a sprawling bit of government. It is about getting that focus, getting that clarity, and giving people the opportunity to actually express themselves. But it is replicable.”
Call centre to coding
An example of how the culture that Morley has cultivated at the DVLA has helped people express themselves is captured in some remarkable stories of career progression. One staff member who joined the DVLA in the call centre, with computing PhD, has progressed to the department’s digital team.
"He hadn’t shared that information with anyone – but it was about working out a way to get that capability," he says.
Although he says there are not a huge number of people who have followed this path, “it is important that there is a story there that people feel they can get involved”, he said.
“We try to open up the roles and we try and persuade people to feel they can apply to the role even if they are not in the bit of the business that is delivering our technology. If they are not in IT services then we are still very much open to them going into it.”
Although perhaps not all departments could emulate this call centre to coding rise, Morley sees the need for a similar culture across Whitehall.
“I think we massively overstate the differences between policy and operations,” he concludes. “The environment you can create – a delivery focus, a focus on the public – is still something that can be done in policy departments.”
Certainly, this focus marks the DVLA out as one of Whitehall’s digital successes and Morley is determined to build on it. There is “no reason why the public sector shouldn’t be able to innovate at pace, and that is something that we are focused on doing”.
He concludes: “There are plenty of private organisations that have real trouble with legacy [systems], and in some cases, we’re already stepping past them.”