This month, perhaps for the first time, my old team’s monthly report is available on the Internet. This is good news, whether it’s driven by a desire to share more widely the progress being made in e-government or a sign of increasing transparency in the e-government unit. Seeing the e-Delivery team’s monthly status is great. Better still, what it means for me is that some of the figures that I’d always hedged on before – both the good ones and the bad ones – are in the public domain and can be commented on. You can find the report on the Cabinet Office website, although it’s not the easiest thing to find (look out for the images pasted in to the site from earlier sites too)
The report on volumes through the Government Gateway – on Page 21 – was always my main indicator of success. Are people actually using it? The figures say that more than 2.7 million Self Assessment returns have been submitted, 1.32 million Tax Credit applications and 137,000 child benefit requests. The relatively new Real Time Pension Forecasting service has attracted 82,600 users – this service, whilst perhaps hard to use, is almost a must-do: it will tell you how much pension you’re due to get when you retire and, if you’re anything like me, encourage you to set up a private pension and start stashing away the cash. However much the state are going to pay you probably isn’t enough. There are nearly 5 ½ million people registered on the Gateway (the bulk of which are set up for Self Assessment). The Local Authority services have yet to break into double digits (although those using the Gateway to process payments have routed several million pounds through it). I read something today where one of the cash machine operators, Scott Tod, revealed that around 10% of their machines had not seen a single transaction in the last month – and wondered how many online government services were perhaps in the same boat
Overall usage, of course, is a reflection of the departments that have set up services on the Gateway – and this is rightly up front in the report on Pages 4, 5, 6 and 7. What started off as a trickle early on now looks widely accepted. Ten central government departments, 3 agencies and 6 Local Authorities have 49 services live and there are a further 26 in plan for the new future (with 13 more LAs). The endless battle to explain what the Gateway is and why it’s important looks to have been won and people are starting to say “It’s there, we’ll use it. Why would we do anything else?”. That is an enormous turnaround from even a year ago when the debate was over its future, its past and why any individual business didn’t just build another one. The team back at my old base have done a great job.
On the subject of usage of the Gateway and the Gateway generally, my old friend Dennis Keeling was out with his mildly sharp knives, taking aim not only at the Inland Revenue (the usual target) but also the Gateway. Dennis runs BASDA, an organisation of software developers who have been instrumental in moving XML onto the agenda of many a company. Whilst he has done very well at that, he’s not always the best person to seek quotes from – in late 2000 he was widely quoted regarding the improbable delivery of the Gateway on time, for instance. He was wrong then. And he’s wrong in this article.
“We have warned the Revenue that the Gateway will not be able to handle the demand for online PAYE returns,” said Keeling.
“We believe that there will be major problems. Companies leave filing to the last minute to make sure they do n0t make any mistakes.”
He’s still wondering whether the Gateway is going to be there! All these years on. This time he’s bothered about the PAYE peak season which opens in a few days – as employers rush to send in their annual returns which must be done by the middle of May. During the next 6 weeks or so, around 1.6 million companies will send data to the IR – the majority by magnetic tape or EDI. Still, eDt’s stats say that there are 418,463 companies registered to send their returns online. PAYE files can be big (10s of megabytes big) so I am not surprised Dennis is wondering if everything is going to hang together. I am confident that the Gateway will take the pain – even if other infrastructure and applications around government don’t quite handle it the same way – after all, that’s what it was built for. But I’ll let Dennis cry wolf because, eventually, he’ll be right and that will be a terrible day (and I will then be equally happy to publicly note his correctness). Of course, he might be right for other reasons – the Inland Revenue might not be ready, third party application software might not be ready, even Dennis’ XML schemas might not be ready.
Still, Kathryne Jobling comes to the rescue of the Gateway
Kathryne Jobling, development director at accounting software supplier Pegasus, said, “The Government Gateway is pretty stable but the connection between it and the Inland Revenue’s back-office systems is the bit that carries the risk. There are numerous servers and the submission runs the risk of failure”
She’s right – there are numerous servers. But it’s not the servers that will be the problem (indeed, having many might be seen by some as a good thing). It will be the software that lets us down – and not between the Gateway and the IR but at one end or the other. I’ve already nailed my colours and said that I think Gateway will be solid. I wish the IR luck this time round – there are far more companies involved this time than at the same time last year.
Carrying on through the monthly report, I see that Directgov, the butt of some jokes from my erstwhile friends at MySociety, had its first month with more than a million unique users in January, coupled with more than 5 million page views. Something in the ad campaign is working. February’s total was down a few thousand from there but still more than trouble the total from early last year.
Separately, some other figures I always used to track with interest show that the MS Internet Explorer figures have dipped below 90% for the first time since I started looked – hitting 87% in February. With Unix/Linux usage still at less than ½% it’s not a result of a platform shift but, I assume, more people using Firefox and Navigator (and the AOL browser – I’m not sure if that’s still IE or if they have moved).
Has e-government arrived? I think the only possible answer is “kind of”. The figures on adoption are good in places – notably the Inland Revenue’s Self Assessment and Tax Credits – but hopeless in many others. When I started in this space over 5 years ago I thought we’d be about where we are now within a couple of years. The fact that we’re not is partly because all things in government take time – the over-used supertanker analogy is still the most accurate (which is probably why it’s so over-used). But there are other reasons too, at least in my view – and here I have to move on from where Dennis is wrong to where I was wrong:
- Government departments still haven’t joined up their services so that I can move around more easily. Benefits and tax credits are still separated – no longer by the Grand Canyon but certainly by a chasm. Benefits are complicated and the language they use even more so; but it’s different from the language used by other bits of government. Even the events post the Tower of Babel didn’t make things this hard, I’m sure.
- Neither have they involved intermediaries more fully. I’m still puzzling over why I have to go to different places to get my car insurance and tax disc, for instance. I don’t understand why the Pension Forecasting application is not wrapped up inside my bank’s site, encouraging me to start my own saving scheme (and selling me the products that I need to use that).
- And I believe that competition has not been fully encouraged. When the mobile phone started up, adoption was slow. Phones were big and ugly and only people who either liked gadgets enormously or who had company expense accounts used them. Competition came along and growth mounted. Super-competition arrived with pay as you go phones, Virgin mobile (and now Easymobile) and now everyone has a mobile. I realise I’m simplifying a lot. But doesn’t it feel that government on the web is still stuck in the days of the Motorala 8800? That big, brick-shaped phone with the huge rubber aerial. It feels like that to me. Software companies and web site providers have not rushed in to offer services – except for IR’s Self Assessment and PAYE. Where are the creative providers who can scrape government applications together and offer new services? Is there no business model in that? Is that because one has been deliberately kept out of reach?
All of these things were on the list, all were espoused by many levels of management and all were bought into at various levels. But not much has happened on any of them. Perhaps it’s too hard, perhaps the incentives weren’t right or perhaps there was just no real desire to do it through leveraging other people.
There are eight months to go before the 2005/100% online target needs to be achieved. It will certainly be achieved – any services not available online will be relatively insignificant or will require changes in legislation that are inevitably difficult to bring in – at least in letter. The spirit – that the UK would be the best place for e-commerce, that would see us leap ahead in productivity as more and more people made use of online government services? Well, that’s still missing. The strange thing is that in every other aspect of online service – Amazon, eBay, Dell, etc – it’s worked just fine.