This article was first published in the April 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Drivers in the UK will be very familiar with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) even if they have never set eyes on its home, an uninspiring tower block in a residential suburb of Swansea. The DVLA has been responsible for maintaining a database of drivers and vehicles in the UK since the mid 1960s. As an executive agency for the Department for Transport, it has four main areas of business: issuing driving licences, collecting vehicle excise duty, registering vehicles and selling personalised registrations.

In terms of the money that flows through the organisation, it is quite a business. The DVLA’s revenue from statutory fees in 2014/15 was £436m, and it collects more than £6bn in road tax every year (all of which is passed to the Treasury). The sale of personalised number plates has raised almost £2bn since the service was introduced in 1989 and raised around £73m in revenue in 2013/14.

In recent years, the agency has also become the poster-child for a more streamlined Civil Service. In the past five years, it has achieved – with apparent ease, from an outside perspective – a government target of £100m in budget savings (or cuts, depending on your view); some of the savings have resulted in lower costs for motorists in the form of reduced licence renewal fees. 

But what about the inside perspective? A proportion of the savings came from the closure of the agency’s network of 42 offices around the country, with the loss of 1,213 jobs. The DVLA offices in Swansea, though, now home to just over 5,000 full-time employees, seem a happy place to be if its busy finance function is anything to go by. 

Affinity with numbers

Rhys Lloyd Thomas and Robert Schofield joined the DVLA in the same year (2002), completed their ACCA exams side by side, qualified together and are firm friends. In true Civil Service style, their job titles are a masterclass of obfuscation: Thomas was until recently ‘assistant director, strategic finance’ (he will shortly move to a new position at the Office for National Statistics), while Schofield is ‘head of unit, business planning and strategic pipeline team’.

Neither had aspirations to be an accountant but ended up in finance because their affinity with numbers was spotted when they joined the agency (Schofield as an administrative assistant, and Thomas on a three-year graduate training programme). ‘My degree was in law and I was working in policy when I joined,’ says Thomas. ‘They always place you within your skillset. But I could see myself in finance and asked to come here in my second year.’

‘When we joined, the agency wasn’t espoused to any particular accountancy body, although the majority of people here were ACCA or AAT,’ he adds. Both elected to train with the ACCA because of the breadth of the Qualification. ‘It has been very useful for both of us because it gives you a very transferable skillset,’ says Schofield. ‘It gives you a wide-ranging exposure to different forms of accounting,’ agrees Thomas. ‘For me it was the right fit because the training had a strategic focus, which has been very important here and has helped as I’ve worked my way up to the senior management team.’

Both take a keen interest in the development of staff in the finance function. In 2008, the training programme was suspended, partly because of cost and partly because the agency was producing more accountants than it needed. In 2013 it was restarted and revamped, and Thomas and Schofield were keen to feed their own experiences into the design of the new programme. ‘The best bits of the training programme were kept – such as financial support while on day release and for books – but one of the changes is that in the new programme students can see a much clearer, defined career path,’ says Thomas. 

Licence to mentor

A mentor-based system has also been introduced for trainees: ‘We didn’t have mentors, but we felt that it would have helped,’ says Schofield. While training, he instigated an informal support group for students so they could share their experiences, and that idea has been built into the new programme. ‘Every student has a mentor to support them and to make sure that they’re getting the experience with the agency that they need,’ he says. ‘The level of support we give to students generates a sense of loyalty – you feel you want to pay that forward a bit.’ 

The agency encouraged a ‘business partnering’ approach between departments, even while the formal training programme was suspended, but this is now more formalised and comprehensive. ‘From our point of view it helps staff keep their CPD up to date, and it ensures the finance staff get a wide knowledge of what the organisation does,’ says Thomas. ‘It has also improved the relationship between finance and other departments. There are no ivory towers here.’

The 130-strong finance function has a hierarchical structure that is typical of the Civil Service: the heads of each unit report to the heads of group (including Thomas), who report to the finance director. About a third of the staff work in financial operations, dealing with the day-to-day management and processing. Three units focus on strategic finance, which covers cost modelling, management information and investment planning. Schofield’s unit concentrates on change assurance, which includes writing the agency’s business plan, and managing the budgeting process and change programmes.

Schofield’s role means he has had first-hand experience of the DVLA’s efficiency programme over recent years. The Reilly review commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2013 recognised that the agency was making great strides with the digitisation of its services, which has been the source of much of its success in meeting its savings targets. In 2015, it took the bold step of bringing its entire IT operation – which had been outsourced for 22 years – in-house. More than 300 staff were transferred to the DVLA from private contractors as a result, and the agency expects the change to bring savings of around £200m over 10 years.

The former BP executive John Manzoni, who was appointed as the first CEO of the Civil Service in 2014, has called the service ‘the best sweetshop in the country in terms of [career] opportunities’. Thomas and Schofield would certainly agree. They both say that the variety of work is one of the best things about their job, as well as the chance to get involved with the development of staff. Together, they have seen the DVLA go through the biggest transformation in its history.

‘We’ve seen the agency go through a time of rationalisation and then centralisation, and a huge transitioning of its IT systems,’ says Thomas. 

‘We’re transforming into an organisation that is fit for the times in which we live.’ 

 Liz Fisher, journalist