Government Gateway At Nearly 19

Work on the new new Government Gateway started this time nearly 19 years ago. Here’s a picture from July 2000 showing how we thought it might all work – at the time the Inland Revenue was looking to extend an existing EDIFACT solution (the EDS EbX solution on the right). From the beginning the plan was to join everything up and become the traffic director for all transactions to and from government.

One of the oft-told stories of the development of the Government Gateway is that it took the team only 90 days, from flash to bang, to put the first version live (our MVP if you will). Remember that this was in 2000/2001, when servers had to be bought, installed and cabled up. When code was deployed on actual spinning disks that you could look at. When architects laboured in data centres, working long hours to make everything work.

Here’s another slide, from the same time, showing how we thought the Gateway would handle Self Assessment. Note the “*” in the bottom right that, again, recognises that the “app” (as we would call it today) could be from anyone.

It’s roughly true. There had been an earlier, failed attempt at delivering a Government Gateway, with a contract let by Cabinet Office. There was then a period when a signed entitled “Under New Management” hung on the office door (actually, in the Inland Revenue’s Bush House office) and, with the IR providing funding for a replacement, we went looking for a supplier who could deliver what we wanted. We knocked on a lot of doors and were mostly laughed at: our ambition was too great, no products existed that could do what we wanted, we should stick to email and send forms back and forth and so on.

We landed on Microsoft at about this time of year in 2000. Lots of people had to get involved in governing whether it could go ahead – all the way to Bill Gates at their end and all the way to the Minister of the Cabinet Office at our end. We picked the live date, 25th January 2001, largely because the MCO was Ian McCartney and we thought Burns Night was appropriate. For a month or so the project was even called “Caledonia.” Before that it had been called “Shark” on the basis that, to meet the timeline, it would need to keep moving and never sleep.

The live date was not entirely arbitrary – we were working back from needing to have PAYE live on April 6th 2001, and we knew we needed to launch the first part (registration and enrolment) by the end of January so as to give us time for the next release, the transaction engine which would process the tax forms.

And then, sometime in October, we got the go-ahead, after an independent OGC Gateway review by Andrew Pinder (who, at the time, was not the e-Envoy and who was not even working in government more widely).

Here’s what the homepage looked like when it was launched, on time and on budget, in January 2001.

I’m not writing about this for nostalgic reasons though, I’m writing because I’ve just seen another project launch in UK government that plans to take data from third party software packages and websites and process/transform (in the technical sense) them so that they can be handled in new, yet to be built government systems.

That’s what the Gateway was built to do. And it still does it, nearly 20 years later, for every PAYE form that is sent to Government. Until a few weeks ago, it did it for every VAT form too, though HMRC appears to have gone back to CSV files, abandoning the great work on GovTalk done by others in the Office of the e-Envoy when the Gateway was still a sketch on a piece of paper.

We are in some kind of endless loop where we keep building what’s already been built and proven, “because we’re special” or because “it doesn’t quite meet our needs” or “because it’s not open source” or “because we don’t want to be beholden to a supplier” … and so we don’t make any substantive progress or break any new ground. It’s a stairway to nowhere.

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