When Iain Patterson joined the DVLA as chief technology officer back in June 2013, he took on a typical public sector IT infrastructure - unwieldy and costly systems, managed by an external partner.
The IT environment was based on a very traditional outsourced approach run by a combination of IBM and Fujitsu. The DVLA paid an annual fee for this outsourcing contract, along with paying for any changes and upgrades.
Patterson, who was seconded from the Government Digital Service where he worked for the recently departed Mike Bracken, noted that the committee were spending £86m on running the contract each year. This for a deal originally signed for 12 years and due to expire in 2015. When he joined the DVLA, the organisation was embarking on a project to overhaul the contract, which alone would cost £80m just to carry out that process - although keeping the status quo could have cost around £240m.
The organisation has between 5,000 and 6,000 employees at any one time, with around 340 IT staff. The team supports 38 million vehicle records and 45 million driver records, along with the collection of a sizeable £6bn a year in vehicle tax.
"It was a monolithic environment, very on-premise, with mainframes to some extent. There was a huge Oracle footprint sitting there as well, for the data middleware," the CTO [pictured below second left] explained when we sat down with him at the Oracle OpenWorld show in San Francisco.
After carrying out some in-depth analysis, Patterson made the decision to cancel the SI contract, without facing any additional fees. "It was cited as being the worst government contract. It was drawn up for its day, and you don't sign up contracts longer than the technology is going to be there for.
"We have savings in excess of £235m from the basis of that," he noted.
Post-SI contract, Patterson had a mammoth task in dealing with the IT staff transfer process, many of whom had been working on the outsourced team for 20-plus years. "Out of 600 people who applied to be insourced under the Tupe transfer rules, we had 303 people who came across to us."
Around 200 of those people were vital to the DVLA, Patterson noted, and so the organisation set up extra training and motivation to retain them. He also developed a relationship with the nearby Swansea University, and looked at bringing some younger people into the DVLA.
"We looked to bring in developers who'd want to stay for one or two years, and they'd bring in a bit of innovation and give us a bit of a kick-start."
As well as cancelling the SI contract and shedding many of the former outsourced staff, Patterson applied harsh measures when it came to deciding which projects to maintain.
"Things that were for another organisation, for example the MOT system - why would I want to do that? That belongs to them. We can help you, but not do it for you.
"I stopped one which was a university for driving training, academies for driving licences. They're quite good ideas but they weren't thought through. So I was having to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds looking at an idea that had no backing or sponsorship."
Patterson explained that the idea was borne out of a "very tragic story" where a government minister had lost a relative due to an accident involving a person who had not been driving for very long. "But the solution wasn't to put a technical solution to that," he said.
Another project that was stopped was around new tax discs, whereby there would be one for direct debit payers, one for foreign operators along with the standard one.
"Just abolish the damn tax disc and stop building out new ones," Patterson quipped.
By doing just that, the DVLA has gone from 40 percent digital take-up to over 90 percent, whether that is renewing a driving licence or paying the annual car tax fee.
While many projects were given a polite decline, Patterson identified three key exemplars that he felt were ripe for an online overhaul: viewing driver records; disposal to trade, as in selling your vehicle; and personal registration from one car owner to another.
"Cloud was very much on that agenda, as was agility. We had some digital exemplars, such as self-serve rather than civil servants putting things on paper, you could self-serve through a single site."
One major project spearheaded by Patterson at the DVLA was rebuilding the application for online tax disc payments.
"The traditional method would be we went back to our SI, we'd get the cost that came back in a few weeks time, go through the approval process that took six weeks, and they were going to charge us nearly £2m to build that including spinning up physical infrastructure and using a MongoDB database," he explained.
Instead, the DVLA decided to seize the opportunity to build the application itself in the cloud using infrastructure as a service.
"It took seven weeks to completely turn that around to a live environment," Patterson rightfully boasted - a timescale normally unheard of in the UK government space.
"We want to control the way we develop. We'll still use third parties to develop things, but we want to develop in-house. We want to be agnostic. We want all our systems to be able to speak to each other, and use multiple cloud providers."
Part of this transformation has seen Patterson talking directly to suppliers like Oracle, rather than letting the SI maintain that relationship. As well as a shift from outsourcing to in-house IT development, Patterson has also moved away from tailoring products.
"We don't want to customise the products. Our systems integrator and us were guilty for many years of taking a good Oracle product and turning it into something horrible. Then when we wanted to upgrade it, we'd have to pay for the whole thing to be redone again. It's a cash cow for the SI, but also we weren't great clients," he conceded.
The DVLA has now moved to a test environment in the cloud, which allows it to spin out new products quickly. "We can get a beta up and running, look at the analytics, look at the customer behaviour and how that's changing, and start doing continuous improvement on those applications," Patterson noted.
Patterson brought large IT project experience gained from working on London 2012 across to the DVLA. He previously worked at the Olympic site as part of CLM, a consortium of CH2M Hill, Laing O'Rourke and Mace, which was appointed to manage the delivery of the Olympic Park and its associated infrastructure.
"I was the sixth CIO to come in to that organisation. When you know you're number six, you know that something is inherently wrong. The person who put the bid together, then couldn't mobilise it; some people didn't fit; you felt straightaway there was something wrong and a lot of friction. Each of the three organisations in the consortium were fighting each other for top dog space," he explained.
Patterson said each company had their own systems they brought in rather that working in collaboration, and then these had to work under the government's requirements.
"The government thought everyone was thieving them and robbing them blind because they set the contract up and they didn't like the way it was transpiring on the ground.
"I created a common technology platform for them all to work from, which was a hybrid of some of their tools. I dismantled the IT team and created a new one under one brand, which consisted of 900 people. Their objectives were the same as we had a team environment."
Patterson's efforts paid off if the success of London 2012 is anything to go by, and his initial successes at the DVLA suggest his harsh yet pragmatic approach will also pay dividends within the GDS.
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