The UK and devolved governments must make complex trade-offs more collaboratively or risk a repeat of DVLA’s pandemic troubles elsewhere, says Matthew Gill
Like many organisations that sent staff home during the pandemic, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) accumulated a large backlog of work. An undercover investigation by the Times revealed last month that more than half of its staff were on paid leave in the first lockdown. 30 Morgan-Bentley P, ‘Inside the DVLA call centre as millions are hit by backlogs’, The Times, 18 March 2022, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/inside-the-dvla-call-centre-as-millions-are-hit-by-backlogs-wgxczcp28 And though the remaining backlog of around 400,000 cases 31 Figures exclude a normal queue of around 400,000 cases. is much lower than its peak of 1.2m the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, says he wants urgent answers.
At the start of the pandemic the agency faced a dilemma familiar to many public bodies: all else being equal, staff working on site reduced its backlog while staff off site were less exposed to Covid. This was not resolvable overnight – but why did DVLA continue to struggle as the pandemic went on?
Not all DVLA’s functions could be performed off site
Over 80% of DVLA’s transactions are online and these worked smoothly throughout the pandemic. But the agency still receives 60,000 items of mail per day. These include the more complex cases, involving sensitive data like medical records, which must be dealt with on site.
DVLA’s business continuity plans addressed the possibility of one of its Swansea sites being unavailable, but not all of them. This left a sizable gap in its readiness, although not one unique to DVLA: government as a whole did not adequately plan for a pandemic before 2020, or require its public bodies to do so.
There are costs and risks to rushing a complex IT transformation, but with hindsight of course faster digitisation could have helped. DVLA’s 2017–20 Strategic Plan stated an intention to largely move off legacy systems within three years. 32 DVLA, DVLA Strategic Plan 2017 to 2020, Gov.uk, 30 March 2017, www.gov.uk/government/publications/dvla-strategic-plan-2017-to-2020, p.15 Many incremental changes were made before the pandemic, but some key updates that could have facilitated remote working were not: a system enabling use of scanned rather than paper documents, for example, was still only in the pilot stage in July 2021. 33 House of Commons Transport Committee, Oral evidence: Work of the DVLA (HC 567), 21 July 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/2613/pdf, Q39
DVLA was also under pressure not to bring staff on site
So why didn’t DVLA bring people on site who could not work from home? Most Department for Work and Pensions staff, for example, came into their offices when their systems didn’t function remotely. 34 Smith B, ‘Four in five DWP staff not working remotely, figures suggest’, Public Technology, 26 May 2020, www.publictechnology.net/articles/news/four-five-dwp-staff-not-working-remotely-figures-suggest
Having closed its network of offices, DVLA entered the pandemic with government’s largest single-site contact centre, in Swansea. 35 DVLA, ‘DVLA retains customer service accreditation for 12th consecutive year’, GOV.UK, 4 February 2020, www.gov.uk/government/news/dvla-retains-customer-service-accreditation-for-12th-consecutive-year Fears among staff were understandable, particularly following a Covid outbreak in late 2020. Welsh Covid guidance was more stringent than English guidance at many stages of the pandemic, and the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) advocated a stringent interpretation of it. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, repeatedly sought assurances on safety issues from DVLA management and the Department for Transport. 36 Nation Cymru, ‘Drakeford turns up heat on UK Government Transport minister over DVLA Swansea Covid-19 outbreak’, Nation Cymru, 24 January 2021, https://nation.cymru/news/drakeford-turns-up-heat-on-uk-government-transport-minister-over-dvla-swansea-covid-19-outbreak/
In response, DVLA created a workplace safer than most. 37 House of Commons Transport Committee, Oral evidence: Work of the DVLA (HC 567), 21 July 2021, https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/2613/pdf, Q114 But it remained under intense scrutiny throughout the pandemic and its limited room for manoeuvre was illustrated when Shapps allegedly overruled an agreement reached with PCS in June 2021 38 Dunton J, Shapps sidesteps questions on ‘scuppered’ DVLA deal, Civil Service World, 25 June 2021, www.civilserviceworld.com/news/article/shapps-sidesteps-questions-on-scuppered-dvla-deal : extensive strike action ensued, without which most of the backlog remaining today would have been cleared.
DVLA took action, but could not solve the problem quickly
DVLA made efforts during the pandemic that helped reduce its backlog. Almost all staff who remain off site can now work, albeit sometimes less effectively. DVLA has also reduced paper correspondence by publicising online channels; extended licences automatically for a period; opened new offices, including in England; and accelerated several aspects of its digitisation, notably enabling drivers to update their addresses online.
These actions did not reduce the backlog as quickly as the public expected, but it is not immediately clear what more DVLA itself could have done given its position in March 2020.
The UK and Welsh governments must work better together
The UK and devolved governments did not co-ordinate decisions well enough in general during the pandemic and they also had different priorities regarding DVLA. It would have been particularly difficult to weigh the Welsh government’s relative interest in prioritising Welsh citizens’ safety against Westminster’s in UK-wide service delivery, but the political discourse became confrontational rather than collaborative. 40 BBC, Covid: UK government ‘working flat-out at DVLA site’, BBC, 27 January 2021, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-55823304 UK and devolved leaders must publicly recognise and take responsibility for the implications of their decisions for each other’s legitimate objectives: this would enhance the level of public debate about the trade-offs made.
Shapps is right to demand answers – but he should provide some himself
Maintaining DVLA services clearly had to be weighed against staff safety (as well as data security and road safety). But no one person was empowered to strike this difficult balance. A complex web of actors shaped decisions, including the Department for Transport, DVLA management and PCS, as well as the UK and Welsh governments. Each had their own priorities and powers.
In future, the UK and devolved governments should simplify such decision making where they can. Providing clearer parameters for disputes over the return to office workplaces would have helped, for example. There should also be greater transparency as to who is making which decisions, be they ministers, officials, management or third parties. In particular, if Shapps did make key decisions, he should say so – and explain why, rather than maintaining a convenient ambiguity that also leaves his department and DVLA tongue-tied. Only then can the public assess whether the disruption it has experienced is reasonable, and if not, who should be held to account.