Interview: Dave Perry, chief technology officer, DVLA

DVLA’s CTO talks about the agency’s plans to become a hub for digital motoring, the importance of culture, and moving away from legacy IT

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How the DVLA is making driving digital

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) recently published its three-year strategy, which has a strong emphasis on digital. And at the helm of the agency’s digital and technology agenda is chief technology officer Dave Perry. 

Having spent 25 years in various IT and tech roles across various industries, Perry joined the DVLA last June with the aim of continuing the organisation’s digital transformation.

The three-year strategy is ambitious. Not only is the DVLA planning to move away from all its legacy IT systems, but it also requires a major cultural transformation to achieve more agile working and become a hub for digital motoring.  

Perry says the strategy is building on the “good work” the agency has done already. In 2015, the DVLA completed a two-year programme to bring its IT back in-house after 22 years of outsourcing – but the work is far from over. 

“There are two main things we are looking to do,” he says. “One is to build our organisation to have a very effective internal IT capability. The second is to transform all our legacy systems that are on monolithic architectures.

“We also want to take traditional software provider-type services and turn them into a lower-cost, more agile open system landscape of loosely coupled services, so we can get a much lower operating cost and a much faster rate of change.”

The DVLA is broadly divided into three areas, he says. One is drivers, which covers driving licences and related matters; the second is vehicles, which covers vehicle registration and tax; and the third is common services, which Perry describes as “all the things that we need to run the agency with all the things that we need to underpin both of those services”.

The agency generates a significant amount of money for the Treasury, as well as touching on almost every household in the UK, so any system downtime would be damaging. That is why Perry says it will not go for a “big bang approach” to replacing legacy systems.  

“If we did that, then as likely as not, we would end up with some pretty significant collateral damage as a result,” he says. “So what we have is a piece of work that is progressively working its way through all of those systems in a systematic and logical way, taking parts of the services out piece by piece. Effectively, we are peeling off service by service.”

Moving legacy systems

Under the strategy, the DVLA intends “to move from the majority of our legacy systems within three years”, says Perry. The agency is aiming for 100%, but even if it falls short of that target, the team will still have “done really well”, he adds.

The organisation also aims to move as much of its technology infrastructure to the cloud as possible. But that doesn’t mean it will move everything to the cloud, because there are some things that cannot be moved for “a number of technical reasons”, says Perry.

“Ultimately, we will take things on a case-by-case basis,” he says. “Our aspiration is that we want a utility-type model where we pay for what we use, and that allows us to have investment or operating costs that are clearly more intrinsically linked to our usage.

“Our aspiration is for a large majority of our services to move to cloud, but not exclusively to one provider because it is our responsibility to diversify our risk.

“Where we retain services, the technology stack we will be implementing for on-premise will be aligned to an internal cloud-type approach. This will give flexibility, so that if the landscape changes, we can move more seamlessly between on-premise and cloud in a hybrid-type model.”

Getting the right skills

During his tenure at the DVLA, Perry has upped its recruitment drive significantly. A large change programme requires a wide variety of new skills and people, and the planned size of the IT team is around 700, he says.

A recent report for the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed a significant digital skills gap in the UK civil service, with an extra 2,000 digital staff needed within five years. While many government departments and agencies are struggling to attract recruits with the right skills, especially at mid-managerial level, the DVLA seems to have bypassed that struggle.  

It has already completed two recruitment cycles for a number of roles that have been filled “without any problem” and is looking to hire a further 100 people for its IT team.

One of the reasons the civil service is struggling to recruit is that pay levels are usually significantly higher in the private sector.

However, the DVLA is part of a pilot programme for a government framework that allows the agency to pay enhanced rates to attract the right people. This is being driven by the civil service’s chief people officer, Rupert McNeil, and the Government Digital Service (GDS).

“IT departments are becoming the Ikea of systems delivery, where they will just be taking a lot of pre-packed services and combine them to meet the needs of the organisation”

Dave Perry, DVLA

While the pay rates might be part of the attraction of working for the DVLA, Perry also credits the organisation’s keen focus on culture and ability to retain existing professionals and foster new talent. As well as piloting the pay framework, the DVLA is working with local universities and schools to find the right recruits.  

“Because this is a progressive organisation, our digital skills are probably significantly advanced for government, he says. “I look at our competition not as other government agencies, but actually people within the private sector.

“We are empowering people to do good work. We are looking at innovative activities, so we promote that, and we promote personal ownership of career development.

“The beauty of it is that because we are a growing team, the opportunities for people are great as well. You come here for a career, not just for a job where you are stymied and then have to move to other organisations to grow and develop.”

Perry also points out that with the evolution of “pre-packed” IT services, IT departments are becoming “the Ikea of systems delivery, where they will just be taking a lot of pre-packed services and combine them to meet the needs of the organisation”.

He adds: “There isn’t a pre-packed Ikea for the services we need, so we are going to become tradespeople and artisans who actually have to build these things. That is going to be a real opportunity because we will be able to offer people unique services and scenarios to be part of.”

Agility and innovation

As part of its three-year strategy, the DVLA is introducing agile ways of working. “This involves the whole business – it’s not just IT that works in an agile way,” says Perry. But because the organsiation has high-volume transactional services and a complex estate, there has to be a balance, he adds.

“You have to understand that there is a combination between managing your existing legacy environment, managing high-volume transactional services, but also being innovative and agile,” he says. “But equally, we pretend that actually we are not a significant sized organisation.

“If you try to do one or the other and don’t accept either, then generally you have a problem. Either you have an operational problem because you are too gung-ho about your rate of change, or you have an agility problem and you are so risk-averse that you don’t actually innovate.”

Innovation has become part of the DVLA’s culture, says Perry. Currently, the organisation has an ongoing “Scalextric challenge”, which is part fun and part strategic innovation.  

Sensors are placed on top of the model racing cars and people in the team get an opportunity to drive them around. The fastest driver wins a prize, encouraging the team to have a bit of fun and create a competitive culture.

“The reason why we want people to drive is that we are also doing a software challenge where we want people to develop applications that can take that sensor data, which is live, real-time streaming data, and turn it into an application that does something meaningful,” says Perry.

This is partly to prepare for autonomous vehicles, so that when they become commonplace, the government does not stifle innovation by spending years preparing for it.  

It is also about developing skills for people in the organisation who want to write software applications, says Perry. “We’re giving them support from our enterprise architecture team, who will be helping support people build those skills.”

Online services

A more immediate task is to continue adding new online services to the DVLA’s technology stack. So far, 26 of its 63 high-level services are being provided online. Most familiar, perhaps, is the share driving licence service, which was the overall winner of the 2016 Digital Leaders Awards, as well as scooping the Digital Public Service Innovation of the Year award.  

The service allows drivers to view their driving licence information online and to share the information with others, such as car rental companies. Drivers can also view a summary of their driving record and when their licence is due for renewal.

By July of this year, some more services are due to go online. One of them is a new online system for motor manufacturers and dealers to first register a vehicle. The service is currently being piloted and is in the beta stage of development.

Read more public sector and government interviews

Perry explains that car dealers who either import cars into the country or manufacture them here, will need to register the vehicle to receive a registration number. For big companies such as Land Rover or Ford, which import vehicles in bulk, the DVLA provides an automated service to conduct bulk updates of thousands of cars, the smaller dealers may only need to register one or two cars.

“What [smaller dealers] won’t have is the back-end systems that allow them to do these kinds of big bulk imports,” he says. “So actually we provide a front-end web service for them to be able to do exactly the same thing, but small in volumes.”

Another service that is still in the early stages of development is a digital licence service. A digital licence will serve as a proxy for an actual licence.

“It won’t replace the licence because the licence is a legislative instrument that we have no choice on at this point in time, but a lot of people use their licence not for proving that they are allowed to drive a vehicle of a particular class, they use their licence as a way of showing photographic documentation of who they are,” says Perry.

Cross-agency collaboration

The DVLA is also working closely with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), especially because the two agencies need to be joined up from a citizen’s perspective in order to provide a seamless experience.

The two agencies are working together to make sure they have “technologies that are consistent so that we become more interoperable,” says Perry. “Ultimately, we are here to make things simpler, better and safer for our customers.” 

While the DVLA does provide data to other agencies and vice versa, if it is legislatively allowed to do so, it is less dependent on other government organisations progressing with their digital transformation.

“That doesn’t mean we are not dependent on them at all, because we are,” says Perry. “But if their transformation programmes are behind ours, it will generally have a lot less impact than you might imagine.

“However, as a senior civil servant, I want everybody’s digital transformation to be successful and quick, for the good of government. We have some of the government’s flagship digital services and want to be able to provide end-to-end services for citizens.”

The DVLA is keen to share lessons from both its successes and failures with the rest of government, as well as learning from others in return.

Perry says this is one of the beauties of working in government compared to the private sector, where he has spent most of his career.

“Ultimately, a large number of our departments and agencies have a common purpose,” he says. “We are not competing, so we can share best practice, we can share our experiences and innovation, and we can learn from each other. What we’re not trying to do is to compete, as you would in the private sector.”

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