The challenges of going digital at the DVLA

The DVLA is seen as one of the early adopters in the public sector drive to provide digital services to save government £1.8bn per year

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The public sector is being heavily encouraged by the government to provide digital services for users in efforts to save £1.8bn per year by moving online.

The government has calculated that on average an online service is 20 times cheaper than a phone transaction, 30 times cheaper than by post and 50 times cheaper than face to face.

However, a couple of months ago, only 36% of civil servants in central government believed their departments had the skills needed to achieve the "digital by default" strategy. And only 26% of civil servants are seeing progress being made in the digital agenda, while 28% of IT staff are not even aware of digital IT-led projects.

Digital by preference

Rather than going digital by default, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) is aiming to become a multichannel business, incorporating both digital and traditional methods of communicating with its customer.

While the agency is making strides with digital services through renewing tax online, abolishing the paper tax disc and other digital services, DVLA chief executive Oliver Morley says the agency is looking to become “digital by preference” because it still receives the majority of its inbound traffic as paper.

“We’re not saying we’ll close off digital channels, but we will be a multichannel business,” he says.

Morley says that while the DVLA is not digital by default, it aims to make its paper services very good and also make its digital offering incredibly easy to use.

DVLA’s director of technology, Iain Patterson, agrees, saying: “Of course there’s a preference and huge savings that can be met on the digital side, but digital is multifaceted.”

Patterson said the idea is to tune down paper-based forms as much as possible, but it will be based on the customer need. “We’ll go at the pace of the customer,” he says.

After working closely with GDS, the DVLA began its own project to create the option to renew a tax disc online, which is now in beta testing mode with members of the public who want to try it out.

Patterson says that GDS helped to set up the programme and advised on technologies, but otherwise it was completed in-house. “Really, what we’re doing is taking away the handcuffs and allowing [the in-house team] to develop.”

The DVLA has an IT team of 340 employees and while the team hasn’t grown to cope with the digital demand, Patterson says it has grown its knowledge and skill base.

The team started work in November and managed to re-platform and present it back for testing within seven weeks.

“Now the team can really stand on its own two feet and in some cases, we’re starting to be best practice and people are coming to see what we’re doing.”

Disposal to trade form

Another area where it makes sense to offer a digital transaction is when a user wants to trade in their car. Filling in a disposal to trade form, a car dealer releases the owner’s responsibility of the car.

“When you go to the garage to pick up your new car, you’re less interested in your old car, so you can drive away in the new one,” says Patterson. “But the old car could be traced back to you if those papers were still in the post.”

Patterson says an instantaneous digital transaction is needed here, and the DVLA is working on an initial alpha platform to deliver that service.

Driver medical enquiries

But on the other side of the spectrum for drivers, the matter of medical enquiries using digital means is not so black and white.

The DVLA must decide whether someone should give up their driving licence for medical reasons, and the initial process starts with a form, which is currently postal, but could be offered as email. But following this step, the agency has to clarify the details and have a continued conversation with the customer.

Morley doesn’t think this transaction will ever be digital as it is mostly assessed case by case .

“You often need GPs and medical specialists to have a view on this, and whatever your view on the NHS is – it’s not a hugely digital one when it comes to discussions,” he says.

Morley says that the back office of this transaction is very paper-heavy. “But we will be doing that kind of thing forever.

“It’s also worth saying that quite a lot of that group isn’t particularly digital,” he adds.

The digital divide

The DVLA still receives and processes 3.5 million cheques a year. “Even the banks may claim to be digital, but they won’t give up on cheques because they’re very clear there’s a certain demographic that really wants them.”

Morley adds that a significant number of DVLA customers don’t have a bank account and send in postal orders to pay for their car tax.

“It’s difficult to say we’re going to cut that channel; in the end, the most important issue for us is that they’re paying tax.

“If there’s a segment that really doesn’t like using digital means, or technically can’t, we need to make sure we can still collect the tax.”

The DVLA has a right to be concerned; according to Tinder, 11 million people across the UK are struggling to connect to the internet. Not because of problems with hardware, bad connectivity, or even rural broadband challenges, but because they either don’t know how or are too poor to get online.

“That doesn’t mean digital isn’t a terrific way of providing another service at a lower cost,” adds Morley. “But you just have to be conscious of being a multichannel business.”

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