Online government update

Every so often I clear out all my enrolments to UK government’s online services and redo them all so that I can see what has changed, who is doing new things and how the services available are evolving. I also poke around and see if I can find some new ones – perhaps ones that have quietly emerged (the fabled soft launch tactic – don’t make any noise and if it’s no good, you’ve got time to withdraw it and try again without anyone noticing). Personally, I always liked the Jim Barksdale quote about every release being market research and pretty much designed with flaws in – it was important, he said, to get things out and have people try them. That’s not a widely held view anymore, but it has merit – if you don’t take some risks with delivery of a new service you’re unlikely to break new ground.

Anyway, last week I thought it was time to look again, partly prompted by an Ian Kearns piece in the Guardian that said that digital government was being a bit maligned and actually it was doing some good things. Although, he seemed to say, it really needed a kick in the arse and new leadership (not sure I followed his apparently counter-intuitive thinking, but he did give some examples of what’s being done, like the congestion charge [!]).

So, I de-enrolled myself from the Government Gateway – using the Inland Revenue’s pleasant and responsive telephone support centre which is based in Shipley. That took all of 5 minutes and then I re-registered using the IR’s own portal. Few people know this I imagine, but starting from last July we have systematically made almost the entire Gateway logic available via SOAP calls. To you and me that means that if a portal provider (be it the Revenue, DWP or even Yahoo if they were keen) can build the Gateway’s functionality into their own portal, using their own look and feel. Effectively, they can make the Gateway invisible – which was the point when we first thought it up but it wasn’t a practical thing to do in 2000.

The IR have taken advantage of this SOAP capability and some changes to their own infrastructure to present an impressive new site. If you haven’t visited, go and do so. If you are not already registed, you can do it from there – without ever seeing the Gateway (except for the logo that they’ve kindly put on the site in case we forget that the userid/password you collect for Self Assessment can be used for Child Benefit, Tax Credits and so on). The new site is impressive bringing together, for the first time I think, all of the Revenue’s services under a single hood, although a few changes in interface style and branding show that there are separate systems still being run, but that’s neither here nor there as you can quickly move between them all without having to think too hard.

The IR have been through a tough time but they remain ahead of the game in online government services, adding continuously to their portfolio and enhancing what is already there.

Once I’d set myself up again (and allowing for the necessary 2-3 day wait for the activation pin to arrive through the post), I checked my Self Assessment liability online. Worryingly it still showed the balance from July, despite me being sure I’d paid the bill back then. No matter, I can communicate securely via the Gateway’s email service with the IR and ask specific questions about my own tax affairs – there are few places you can do that in the world right now. I’m going to give them a few days to answer, but once they do my usual email account will get a message that I have secure correspondence waiting for me in the special area. Why would you do it any other way?

I don’t qualify for tax credits or child benefit which is a bit of a shame, but I did have a go just in case and to try out the services. No problems with those either.

This week I also went to my Local Council site, Southwark, an intriguingly purple page greeted me. I must have missed that their corporate colours are purple, but their ‘Corporate Identity’ site is blue – schizo? Like the IR, the folks there let you pay bills using the Girobank service. There are few other services online (or at least, I couldn’t find any others), but you can communicate via email with the staff there. I’ve got a running problem right now in my area, so rather than write a letter, I used the online service. It took a while for a reply to come back (Sobig delays?), but once it came back, it was courteous and to the point – which was pretty much that they couldn’t help me. Ho humm.

On a whim, I went to the Environment Agency where you can take advantage of the marvellously named “Fish-e” service. It’s a long time since I went fishing, but nice to see that you can get your licence online if you need to. That site in turn took me to the NLIS site (not the smoothest site I’ve ever seen) … and from there, via a bizarrely placed link beneath a big ad, to the SearchFlow website, which I’d heard would allow people to carry out searches on property in minutes instead of days (and presumably therefore, much more cheaply but I can’t be sure of that). It seems to be for solicitors rather than housebuyers, and the home page has a great opening paragraph (on which I will make no comment):

It is said that software must continue to develop if it wishes to remain competitive with the competition or even, as in Searchflow’s case, continue to set the standard to which the competition will aspire. This is true; however with Searchflow’s undoubted record in this area (312 enhancements in the first 18 months alone) most recent changes have been behind the scenes and have been aimed at improving efficiency so that we can continue to provide the best possible service to you our clients.

Disappointingly, these services don’t yet use the Government Gateway. Perhaps that time will come.

Finally, if there are other services you’re looking for online … the only place to go is UKonline’s “Do it online” section. Would have been nice I guess for Ian Kearns to have checked that our first. He’d have found far more going on than he thinks. Some good, some middling, some bad – but an awful lot going on and more and more services online all the time.

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