Last week, on Burns Night, the UK’s Government Gateway was four years old. Today, the Gateway has 5.1 million registered users with nearly 50 services from 20 different government entities. If you are sending a Self Assessment tax return, claiming Child Tax Credit, paying a parking fine in Shepway, sending in your VAT return, checking your pension entitlement or booking a session to give blood, then you are using the Gateway. Sometimes, though, you won’t even know that you are – the Gateway allows departments to present its screens in their own format and using their own brand.
Over the next twelve months, over two dozen new departments will make new services available. Most excitingly more than 40 services for 43 Local Authorities will be developed, making the Gateway truly the centre piece of UK government’s joined up initiatives
Whilst technically the Gateway is at version 1.6.6, in reality it’s probably v2.6.6. The first time round things didn’t get off to a smooth start and attempts were brought to a halt. A recovery plan was initiated in late 2000 with the participation of new vendors, notably Microsoft. The plan called for the entire project – design, development and delivery – to be completed inside 90 days so as to meet some pressing deadlines for the PAYE service (failure would mean that an entire end of year process would have been missed along with commitments to the business community). Ian McCartney, then Cabinet Office Minister, reviewing the project at the final point before authorisation to go ahead, leaned across the table to me and said, in his inimitable accent, “If this doesn’t work, it will be a resignation issue!” I acknowledged that point him and assured him that I, as project manager, along with the rest of the team were committed to making it work and that, if we didn’t, I’d resign. He quickly retorted that it was not my resignation that would be asked for, but his. Pleasingly, neither was called for.
After a tense 90 day project, V1.0 of the Gateway saw the light of the day (and it was quite literally only just light) on January 25th 2001. The team – both suppliers (Microsoft, Dell, Cable and Wireless and numerous partners), government (Cabinet Office and key departments notably the Inland Revenue, HM Customs and DEFRA along with, in turn, their suppliers) and contract staff from various companies – had delivered. Many nights had been spent in the noisy, cold data centre where the Gateway was to be hosted. Two full builds of the hardware had been completed. Test and production environments were in place. The budget had been met, even allowing for supporting a few additional items that had been unexpected. It delivered because everyone cared passionately about making it happen.
Early on, press coverage of the Gateway focused on its apparent reliance on the use of Microsoft browsers. Indeed, The Register was first to the punch with an article on May 28th 2001 suggesting that the Gateway was developed by, for and only for Microsoft. John Naughton, at the Observer, used that to feedback another piece hinting at possible corruption in government regarding the contract, going so far as to say “the cornerstone of the Government’s internet infrastructure is totally dependent on the closed, proprietary software of a foreign monopolist”. For someone who so meticulously checks and footnotes his stories, it was needless and inaccurate scaremongering – not to say probably libellous. But it was all par for the course in 2001 and, to some extent, into 2002.
The story on browser compatibility – the central issue that the commentators wrote about – was a little confused then. The Gateway worked, certainly, with Netscape browsers (whether on Mac or PC). What didn’t work was the use of digital certificates – tokens issued by third parties that provided higher levels of authentication (and that were therefore only required by certain services, such as online VAT).
In early 2001, digital certificates for individuals, or digital signatures, were in their infancy. They’d been in use for several years, of course, on servers (providing secure, and sometimes not so secure, links to online shopping sites). The UK government was ahead of the world in passing legislation that allowed such signatures to take the place of handwritten ones on official documents. Government had also tried to create a market for their supply, rather than taking the more obvious route of acting as the certification authority themselves. Two third parties, Chambersign and Equifax, stepped in first to provide the background checking and issuance process for the certificates. The Gateway could read transactions sent using them, authenticate them (and check their validity) and route the information to the correct government department.
The technology backing this clever idea was, however, not ready for prime time. Microsoft had fully integrated digital certificates into their Internet Explorer browser but the Netscape team had not. Since those days I’ve often joked that digital certificates had spent 30 years getting to Gartner’s famed “trough of discontent” and had yet to emerge.
Frustratingly, there were big differences between browser versions and between platforms – older versions would not work, nor would anything on the Mac (because of differences in the Java Virtual Machine). Less used operating systems, such as Linux, did not have any support at all for the certificates and the low usage made commercial incentives for developing it hardly motivating. Indeed, in October 2002, it was clear that certificates were “on life support” as I was quoted as saying in The Register.
Interestingly, compatibility with browsers remains a problem today. Try visiting the Parcelforce website using Firefox on Mac OS X – you won’t get very far if you need to arrange redelivery of a parcel. With certificates, even simples ones, such as used by my online bank things are worse. They insist on a digital certificate to authenticate me – or at least to prove that I am the person that downloaded the certificate the first time when I registered; the certificate works fine with IE on a PC, but not at all on the Mac that I use most of the time.
The Gateway, as the press have often focused on, is based on Microsoft technology. That’s not new and, probably, shouldn’t be all that contentious. Why? Because it sits in a neatly non-heterogeneous network of central infrastructure in government – with Solaris, Linux, IBM and others just as well represented. For all the criticism about what platform it’s on, the thing works. Today, it marks a full 12 months at 100% availability – perhaps not a rarity in the commercial world of such titans as eBay and Amazon but it’s unique in online government. Indeed, the Gateway even takes care of, say, tax submissions when other services are down – neatly buffering them until the backend systems are properly available. In 4 years, the Gateway has been proven to have never lost a message.
When it was built, it was a big deal. It used new software, such as Biztalk (which at the time was not in commercial use and had not even been released to market), a complex architecture (with over 200 servers) and XML over both the Internet and the Government’s own Intranet. Departments connect to it from their portals (again, a wide range of different platforms) and link their back ends to it using connection boxes (known as DIS boxes) provided by Microsoft, Sun/Software AG and IBM/Etude. Over 30 different suppliers have been involved in connecting to the Gateway for the various customer departments that use it today. Arguing about whether it’s on platform A or platform B is a waste of time, as much now as it was then. Government IT consists of one or more of everything ever built, including many platforms that have long since stopped being built; the fundamental point is an ability to operate amongst all of those platforms – that is achieved in the Gateway’s case by strict adherence and, indeed, leadership regarding the government’s eGIF standards.
All this time later, the answer to the question John Naughton posed is clear
“Does the Government really intend to force UK companies to run Microsoft operating systems on all of their devices in order to do business with agencies, departments and local authorities?”
Nope, of course not, and it never did.
In the last year, over 1 million people have sent their Self Assessment returns via the Gateway, tens of thousands of businesses have sent their PAYE or VAT returns in and increasing numbers are making use of the newer services. They’re using all kinds of platforms to send in their forms, connecting to all kinds of government platforms – noone should care what platform they use or which they need to talk to. Over 5 million registered users is proof that noone does care. That’s up there amongst the biggest services in the UK (whilst Egg has fewer at around 3.5 million, eBay appears to be the winner with a claimed 10 million).
Since the initial release, the Gateway has been through some significant upgrades. The first allowed Local Authorities to connect to it via the Internet (previously, a secure, accredited connection via the Government’s Secure Intranet was required). Later versions brought in new functionality such as Secure Mail (allowing you to exchange emails with, say, the Inland Revenue to discuss your tax affairs confidentially) and Payments (meaning you can now pay your parking fine or council tax for several Local Authorities). Now you can receive a text message when you have sent a cheque to government confirming that it has been received and all is in order. There are even a couple of hospitals that use it to send appointment reminders via text.
Alongside all of the developments in the UK, the Gateway is also in use in four other countries who are using it to help meet their own efforts to deliver e-government. Whilst the UK government may have sold missiles, submarines and other devices to foreign countries in the past, I’m not aware of any equivalent software deals.
The rush is on now to meet the Prime Minister’s objective, set in March 2000, to have 100% of government services online by the end of 2005 (with a rider attached in late 2003 requiring high usage of the key services). The Gateway is an increasingly fundamental part of achieving that aim. Is there more to do? Of course. There always is. The team back at the eGU are doubtless plotting new strategies for making it easier to connect to, faster and simpler to access and yet more functionally rich.
Technology is never easy, government technology less so; sometimes though it comes together and it’s worth seeing that and acknowledging how much has been done rather than point at all the things that might have been different.
Four years on, it’s still a thrill to have been part of the team that delivered Gateway; still a buzz to see how much usage it gets; still fascinating to think about how things might develop from here. Kudos to the team, it was a special time back then; we have a right to be proud of what we got done.