Joining up is never easy

A couple of months ago I was asked to write a piece on the Government Gateway for a magazine. Commissioned by our press office, I duly went off and put together my thoughts. I’ve never seen the piece published so rather than let it go to waste, I thought I’d put it here. Maybe it was so awful it didn’t merit being actually printed on real paper. I’ll let you folks judge.

“Breaking up is never easy” said Abba. But it seems to be a lot easier than joining up, at least where government is concerned. A little over two years ago the Office of the e-Envoy launched the Government Gateway on an unsuspecting world with three business-facing transactions from three different, leading, departments. Since then six new departments have connected and, all together, there are seventeen transactions with many recent additions citizen-focused (such as Child Benefit and Tax Credits). That is not a bad total but it is barely a dent in the total number of services that will need to be online if we are to meet the Prime Minister’s target of getting government online by the end of 2005.

The Gateway offers a curve of capability ranging from a simple authentication process allowing the citizen to sign up for a single service, such as Self Assessment, right the way through more complex processes involving corporations and organisational hierarchies, assigning agents for certain transactions, digital certificates and access by third party applications (such as accountancy software or payroll providers) to your backend. In its first major upgrade in July 2002, the Gateway shifted slightly and became a “hub”, allowing other services to be plugged into it and used by all those connected to it. The first services plugged into the hub include secure two way mail, debit card payment handling and a pilot notifications engine to deliver text messages to mobile phones. The aim of the Gateway is twofold, (i) to hide the complexity of government (as seen by the citizen) through facilitating a joined up veneer and (ii) to reduce spend on technology by developing a piece of “central infrastructure” that can be adopted by many departments.

Without the Gateway, departments, agencies or local authorities would have to create the necessary software to handle authentication, route the transaction and manage the process to ensure that every message sent and received was guaranteed delivered with appropriate auditing and control. Without the Gateway though, there would be no joining up – every department would have set up separate user ids and passwords (some departments would even struggle to join up internally and would doubtless have issued separate passwords for every service) and third party software companies or portal providers would have to figure out how to talk to each department, raising their costs and their frustration levels.

That said, it has not been easy to get the Gateway accepted. It is always easier to find reasons not to do something than to seize the opportunity and make the most of it, whilst accepting some risk. Joining up is inherently difficult. It means giving up control of part of your end to end infrastructure and devolving some accountability for success (and, for that matter, failure). It also means that things will have to work a certain way. The “kitchen sink” design mentality ought to be a thing of the past although it is still much practiced. With central infrastructure like the Gateway, only core requirements are catered for and they are honed so that the system will perform reliably at high volumes. In some cases, that means compromise. But, in most cases so far, the core requirements are in advance of what is needed so there is a much bigger “bang for the buck”. When you join the Gateway “club”, you get access to a range of experience from both big and small departments, a system that has been around long enough to be regarded almost as mature and a community of suppliers who understand how it works, why it works and what to do with it. Joining up delivers what no amount of individual thinking could possibly do.

As we rocket towards the 2005 deadline, the focus must change from finding reasons why things should not or cannot be done to finding ways of doing them. The capability to deliver an online, citizen-focused, joined up experience is finally in place – we just have to take advantage of it.

To date we’ve made only the simplest services available, where one person sends one form to one department. The services that are needed now will involve several departments, often third parties too, and may require several stages to complete. Think about the Student loan process: the student must complete a form, as must a parent; the parent’s earnings must be checked with the Inland Revenue; all of the data is checked by the Student Loan Company; to pay the loan a bank account is needed; when the student leaves university and their salary is sufficient to pay the loan back, the Inland Revenue must re-engage to debit the appropriate amount via PAYE. How on earth would all that happen without a few key pieces of central infrastructure?

The more complex problems, however, will arise not from whether we fully exploit the technology available (both central infrastructure and silo infrastructure), but in how government chooses to join up. Departmental business leaders must make some choices now about how they want authentication to be done – will they trust third parties to provide the necessary assurance, or will there be cross-reliance on a relationship already formed with another government department for instance. There must be close co-operation between the technologists and the business (who are seeking to drive usage), the fraud prevention team (who naturally want to prevent losses) and the data protection sovereigns (who need to guard against abuse of information).

Fusing technologies will be of little value if the control processes, accountability guidelines and business processes are not aligned too. It’s easy to imagine a world where the technologists eventually get things together ahead of the business but, if that turns out to be the case, there will be little return on investment and we will certainly not have created a joined up, citizen-focused, transformed government.

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