How Can Government Grow and Recruit Digital Talent? The Case of the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency
This blog is adapted from a conversation with Tom Brewer, Head of Service Creation, UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and Matthew Lewis, Chief Architect, UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, moderated by Mark Schwartz, Director, Enterprise Strategy, AWS. The discussion, which was a part of the European Government Delegation Programme at re:Invent 2018, focused on how governments can build digital talent.
Mark: What is the mission of the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)?
Tom and Matt: The goal of the DVLA is to get the right drivers and vehicles taxed and on the road as simply, safely and efficiently as possible. Additionally, we provide a series of related digital motoring services for the UK public, including provision of the tachograph cards that track the working patterns of long-distance hauliers, and an online trailer registration system to ensure that UK trailers are suitable for use in EU countries. We’re delivering new and existing services through a growing range of digital channels, putting us at the forefront of government digital transformation.
Why did you decide to build cloud competencies across your organization to deliver it?
We wanted to take control of our own destiny. We had developed an IT transformation strategy that involved migration away from the monolithic legacy services that had previously underpinned the Agency’s working practice. The second major aspect of the strategy was responding to the previous decision to in-source the IT function; previously, the Agency had outsourced all major IT systems so this was a fundamental shift in mindset.
The strategy gave us the opportunity to review both our organizational structure and the technologies on which we would base our new software and services. Knowing that there wouldn’t be any reduction in the rate that new projects were being commissioned, and that we had to balance the new projects with the legacy transformation, we needed to choose technologies that would enable rapid development. In commodity cloud, we found a platform that would provide the basis for building user-focused applications which we could change very quickly based on customer feedback.
We realised quickly, however, that the road to success could have many potential barriers along the way.
What were these barriers?
Moving to the cloud is moving to a different mentality. We had to change the organization, build new skills among our existing workforce, and recruit fresh talent. Then we realized that there were some challenges to tackle in attracting this talent.
We focused on two factors: upskilling people we have and recruiting new talent. We needed to understand our market, so we needed to create a strategy to build our talent. We are a major employer in a region not traditionally associated with IT jobs. A core part of our ethos is to invest in our people and grow our own capability. We have started to map out what our future organizational structure should look like, and have identified key points at which we look to attract and develop new talent.
We have run code clubs and challenges in which we taught 7–11 year olds and 11–14 year olds programming skills, and have run competitions across schools in an attempt to drive IT engagement across younger age-groups in Wales.
There is a partnership with AWS where we go into colleges and get youth excited about learning new tech by teaching them about Alexa skills. We have partnerships with local universities and have helped to create course content, building a curriculum where the learners share time between study and with DVLA engineering teams, learning both the theory and the practice as part of their development, with the end-goal being that they finish university and join the Agency as fully-formed software engineers that can claim skills in software, test, and DevOps/platform engineering disciplines.
On reskilling, we identified career paths and backed them up with training. We have a number of online training providers for the people we bring in with access to AWS environment, online learning, and we built a centre of excellence for each set of skills.
Can you describe the process? How long did it take you?
To begin with, it takes time. We started this process in 2016, and we are now starting to see results. It is important to immediately realize that there are things that are out of your control (for example, government recruitment processes) and focus on what you can control. When you focus on what you can control, you realise there are more possibilities than constraints.
So, we started to think about what we were able to do, what incentives could we offer in order to build our pipeline of talent in what was, and remains to be, a very competitive IT job market. We broke our ideas down into short and long-term actions. We immediately focused on re-organising and upskilling our existing workforce. This then created opportunities for a new wave of recruitment, which brought with it new ideas and innovations.
Then we put in place a system of incentives for learning by providing access to learning materials from organisations such as ‘A Cloud Guru’ and ‘PluralSight’, and further supporting our staff by providing financial backing for qualifications such as AWS certifications. We aim to coach and incentivize our leading engineers into becoming evangelists of innovation within their areas of specialty, and further improve and reward them by asking them to attend and speak at important conferences, for example, this year we have brought our Lead Platform Engineer to AWS re:Invent.
We also invested in retraining workers with a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM subject) into cloud engineers, building additional cloud competencies on their learning foundations and transferable skills.
In other words, you up-skilled your workforce, built a pipeline of new digital talent, and retrained people with the right attitude and foundations into cloud-native engineers. How did you make these changes stick?
This starts from the leadership level – you need to set a clear direction. We told our people: innovate, and you’ll always have our support.
We created a digital centre of excellence where our product teams and engineering squads are situated, with the idea being that having peers located nearby would encourage knowledge-sharing. We have also just opened a new office in Bristol to make the most of being in a geographically-diverse job market.
In parallel, we tried to create and galvanize our engineering communities by encouraging them to run “change jam sessions” aimed at sharing best practice, thinking big and turning ideas into actions. The communities are self-sustaining, but we also inspired them through engagement with industry leaders such as AWS.
We also reminded them that government may not offer them private sector salaries, but we give them the opportunity to serve citizens at a scale that they are unlikely to experience elsewhere, with technologies that are right at the cutting edge.
What challenges do you still face?
Today, we invest in training young graduates. We would like to hire them, but we cannot always offer them a role. We will, therefore, need to change our recruitment principles around aptitude, so we have the strongest recruitment proposition that can be offered. We also need to work harder to continue to attract the most diverse workforce we can. Through our various outreach programmes and collaborations, we’re also working hard to challenge any wider assumptions that girls are not good at tech – which simply isn’t the case.
What do you recommend to your peers who are embarking on this transformation journey do?
Transforming legacy organizations is hard. It requires leaders to change culture, processes, governance, and competencies. But it’s not impossible. Get your roadmap in place and make sure you have the right building blocks. Make sure you have achievable goals that build toward your long-term vision.
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