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.

Digital Challenges

Over the last year I’ve worked in various different places, public and private, reviewing projects.

The most common line I’ve distilled from dozens of conversations is

“We are X years into our Y years transformation”

Which is greater, X or Y?

Obviously, X should be smaller than Y. Eg we are 1 year into our 3 year programme to digitise (whatever we are digitising).

Sadly, the opposite has been true in every case. We are 2 years into our 1 year plan to make change happen. Or even 3 years into our 1 year plan to turn the world on its head.

Things take longer than expected. Invalid assumptions are made. The specific outweighs the general. Every time.

Streamlining or Transforming

In early 2001 I presented to an audience of civil servants from the Inland Revenue, 300 or so grade 5s up to the Permanent Secretary (grade 5 is old money for what is now SCS 1).

The idea was to walk them through the changes that the Internet was bringing – and, particularly, what it would mean for the way they engaged with taxpayers (oh the debates that were had about customer versus taxpayer versus citizen versus many other words).

At the time Self Assessment was the only online transaction available from the IR’s website – we’d put that online in April 2000, though the application itself came on a floppy disc (we moved it to a truly online app in time for the 2001 tax year). Those were, indeed, the days.

I’ve pulled a couple of the slides out

Cell-phones as the next generation access tool? Who would have thought.

The conversation I wanted to have, mainly, was around the change in the customer experience that would come about from moving online – a shorter, more interactive, more reponsive process that had the power to change everything about the way tax was collected (timing, amounts, compliance etc)

Today, many would call this “digital transformation.” But, it’s not. It’s streamlining the process – getting rid of redundant steps, using technology to replace paper, speeding the turnaround time, providing feedback etc. The customer experience is certainly transformed; now a taxpayer / citizen / user / customer can reliably send their tax return in 1 minute before the annual deadline and know that it has been received safely. The numbers of people who send their tax returns in on Christmas Day was surpisingly high, from day one of putting this service online. Much of what we call “digital transformation” is like this – getting a paper process online and making it easier to use isn’t transformational at the macro level, although it can be in terms of customer experience. Do it when you want to, not when we want you to.

There are constraints of course – the Internet was new for many, but expectations were quickly moving much higher:

Looking at that all these years later, I wonder if I got hierarchy and capability the wrong way round, or whether I was making a different point. I think the former.

But we had a plan

True transformation needs a fundamental re-engineering. It changes not the process but the outcomes, removes constraints and affects people, the economy and the government fundamentally.

There are precious few examples of Real Transformation (TM), except where people throw the T word around to gloss over a lack of innovation, or lack of new thinking and just want to pretend that the planned changes are a big deal.

Delivery and Performance Down Under

An interesting read, via @paulshetler, today, covers the setting up of a new piece of governance in New South Wales. the “Delivery and Performance Committee” (DaPCo).

The best quote from the release, by Victor Dominello, NSW Customer Minister, is easily:

This reform – is cultural and it is whole-of-government – it is the hard stuff, the messy and complex innards of government that nobody likes to talk about. It’s not shiny but it’s one of the biggest enablers for digital transformation and service delivery – which is why we’re committed to getting it right.

The committee plans to ask the hard questions on delivery, drive adoption of a Netflix-like approach (“test and tweak services in short delivery cycles based on customer feedback”), improve the “tell us once” functionality.

Importantly, they say that the model will be replicated at the Federal level, with “Services Australia”, previously known was the Department of Human Service.

and then this

With our counterparts in the federal government, we’re making big advances in designing services around complex life events – we’ve already launched a prototype to help people through the end–to–end journey at pivotal moments in life, like what to do when somebody dies, so you don’t have to go to 10 different government departments

For a moment I thought it was 2001 all again and UKonline had moved down under.

It all sounds good. Just a couple of thoughts

  1. A committee? That sounds like a challenging way to manage an agile, fleet of foot, iterative delivery cycle based on customer feedback
  2. What’s the first project or policy it will start with and is it policy focused, technology focused, solution focused, delivery methodology focused or all of the above?
  3. What’s the lever by which the work gets done once the committee pronounces? How will they tell everyone what the new guidance is so that people don’t waste time preparing the wrong solution that the committee then reject?

Interesting stuff. Would be good to compare before and after, if it can be asssessed transparently. Lots of effort has gone into making a similar switch in the UK, of course, but the translation into real improvement for transactional services is hard to see except in a few really strong cases.

Digital Transformation – The Roads

If we were setting out to digitally transform transactions that are road (and road travel) related, we would have a few things to look at, including:

  • Vehicle Excise Duty (aka car tax, road tax, vehicle tax) – that is the “tax disc” of old, paid every 6 or 12 months through a transaction direct with DVLA
  • Fuel tax (paid at the pump when filling your tank with petrol or diesel)
  • Congestion charging (essentially pay as you go but with an option to set up a direct debit for easier payment, mostly to avoid fines when you forget to pay)

The money raised from these charges doesn’t necessarily go to managing, repairing or building roads. It’s not, as they say in government, hypothecated, or ring-fenced. The money goes into the Treasury’s general funding and is allocated according to policy and/or departmental bids. They are, then, focused on revenue raising. You have a car, you have to pay tax to keep it on the road and more tax the further you go and even more if you go into some specific areas.

There are ways to reduce how much you pay as a driver – having a fuel efficient car (reducing VED and fuel tax), driving an Electric Vehicle (taking VED and fuel tax to zero, at the cost of an increased electricity bill), driving fewer miles (reducing fuel tax), don’t drive in marked congestion zones etc. Obviously, those without cars pay none of the above charges, but may incur some of them indirectly.

DVLA would argue that they have transformed Vehicle Excise Duty. Not long ago you would show up at a Post Office with your MOT and insurance and get a paper tax disc, for display in the window of your car. Now the transaction is entirely online and the paper tax disc is virtual. This has been a long journey – see this piece I wrote in 2006.

But, in many ways, the cow path has been paved. It’s beautifully done, for sure, and DVLA’s work is amongst the very best that UK government has managed in the 20 years of working to move transactions online. The customer experience has, without doubt, been transformed – from a visit to the Post Office to point and click and done. The what and why remain the same, the how has changed (dramaticlaly).

Transformation is, though, about fundamentally re-engineering the process, the business model, the people and the systems. It requires looking at the what, the how and, particularly, the why.

With EVs expected to become more prevalent over the next few years, these taxes will all fall to zero without a change in policy. Some taxes – fuel duty – will be impossible to collect in the same way as they are now. And that means there’s a great chance to look at they why of each of them, and decide on what a better outcome (or set of outcomes might be).

We might for instance decide that the combination of policies we put in place should:

  • Work to reduce congestion at peak hours across the board (not just within certain geographic areas) … and so driving between certain hours attracts a higher “fuel tax” on a per mile basis. We’re no longer collecting that tax from the pump, but direct from your mileage, as reported by the car (or your phone, or sensors/cameras in or alongisde the roads etc)
  • Encourage people to use certain roads, balancing usage across all grades of roads, moving people off busy roads onto quieter roads, or away from residential areas during school hours … and so the type of road you are on will affect how much you pay
  • Charge you more based on what the list price of the car you are driving is … proxying VED but linking it directly to the original purchase price of the car. If you want to drive an electric Veyron, that’s fine, but you’re going to pay for the privilege
  • Make the question of car versus bus versus train versus plane a calculation for every journey, with the aim of persuading people to take the greenest option every time
  • Drive (ahem) a shift in road usage so that deliveries are consolidated with a mix of pull from customers (looking for greener and cheaper solutions) and push from delivery companies (who are subject to rising costs for peak road usage, inefficient vehicles etc)

Direct taxation (VED) and indirect taxation (fuel duty) could blend into a model that could, indeed, be varied so as to raise enough money each year, or over a period of 5 years, to build and maintain the road network. The types of tax and the methods of collecting it would be transformed, and digital technology would be required at every point of the process to manage who was paying, what are they paying and how are they paying.

Various people working in e-government predicted the demise of the tax disc many years ago, certainly as long ago as 2003 and likely before. The tax disc is, and was, just a way to raise money tied to something you had (a car), just as stamp duty is a way to raise money tied to something you are transacting (buying a house, or a share). We have evolved the uses of each tax, contrived to find ways to raise more money for each, and, at every stage, taken the tax further and further away from its original point.

Every so often we get an opportunity to rethink these things at a fundamental level. We get a chance to think what a true transformation could achieve … to question the why and the way… and then figure out “how” we might pull it off. And in thinking about that “how” we should be looking for the simplest solution – not the one that requires a nationwide infrastructure build that will be costly, expensive, prone to failure and take years, but one that makes best use of what we already have – what’s on the roads, what’s in the cars and what’s in the pocket of drivers.

The trick, of course, will be figuring out how to do this whilst recognising that some of the approaches and decisions will be wrong and will need to unwind. Some of the charges set will prove to be a peverse incentive, some of the routing will be wrong, some things will be gamed or outright defrauded. Transformation isn’t a before versus after big bang thing. It’s just as DVLA showed it to be – you keep working at it and every so often you look up and go “wow.”

Just What Is Digital Transformation?

Yesterday, building on a Tweet from @hondanhon I posed the question

“What is a successful digital transformation project, from the last decade, that everyone would recognise?”

I started the list off with Netflix. This company has achieved four impressive feats:

  1. Disrupted the video rental market with its postal model, no late fees, large back catalogue etc … putting Blockbuster out of business (there are a couple of good books that tell the whole story, and an even better podcast from Wondery, in its Business Wars series)
  2. Transformed its own business model into a fully digital model by moving, first, to an online streaming business, letting customers watch major films and TV shows (though not those currently showing)
  3. Made a further leap to become a content company – like Warner, Sony and others – producing and commissioning its own shows and films, not just in English but in several languages.
  4. In doing (3), Netflix disrupted TV (binge watching entire series) as well as bringing “watch what you want when you want” to their customers

This has all cost a lot of money – their content budget this year is rumoured to be some $15bn – and it’s not clear if there’s a path to profitability, but all of it together makes for an astonishing transformation

But if you look for other examples of transformation and, particularly, digital transformation, it’s hard to find them.

That, for me, is because it feels like we’ve linked two words that are largely nothing to do with each other.

Digital is about putting your previously offline services online and improving them to fit better into the online world. Transformation is about fundamentally re-engineering your business model (in a positive way).

In 2001, HMRC put Self Assessment online. It wasn’t called digital then, but e-government. It was clearly a move to digital services. From that year on, you could fill in your Self Assessment form online, at 2 minutes to midnight on deadline day, 31st January, and be confident that your tax return was accepted.

Later, PAYE forms could be sent, from pretty much any accounting software, via the Government Gateway, achieving the same result. Over a few years, paper returns were largely wiped out.

But was this transformational? The forms were the same – they weren’t on paper, but they were still forms, asking the same questions in the same way. You didn’t need to print PAYE forms from your Sage package (or buy their hugely marked up paper), but the data you needed was the same. Perhaps the biggest benefit was that various applications – whether HMRC’s own or those from third parties – validated the data you were entering and ensured that it would be accepted (it didn’t mean it was right of course – there were, and are, still plenty of ways to get the data acceptably wrong).

More recently, an example might be that of DVLA with their online tax disc transaction.

That’s clearly a digital service – no longer did you have to go to the Post Office with your MOT and Insurance documents to pick up a new paper disc. If I recall correctly it was a two stage change, with the more recent work getting rid of the tax disc.

But is it transformational? Those who don’t buy a tax disc are now slightly more difficult to catch because a passing Police Officer can’t look in the window and check the date. And, of course, you still need a “tax disc” albeit now it arrives via email.

Perhaps transformation would have meant that the tax disc was purchased along with your insurance, or was given to you when you passed your MOT, collapsing some transactions, moving the point of collection to industry and changing the relationship with the customer so that it was no longer with government,

Very recently the Home Office launched an app that would allow an Android phone user to scan their passport when applying for, say, settled status. In a couple of weeks that same capability should be available for the other 50% of the population – the iPhone users – as the new release of iOS will allow the Home Office access to the NFC chip.

This is definitely game changing – some 85% of transactions (and there have been roughly a million so far) have apparently come through the online channel – and when iOS launches, this should jump massively (and help cover the 2m who haven’t yet used it but who may need to). Is this transformation? It could be, but then, of course, it’s a new burden that we are imposing on people and we are giving them a faster way to remove that burden, we are not removing the burden altogether,

Eight Years On From GDS …

… and what have we accomplished?

I wrote about Martha Lane Fox’s report on the future of e-government (shortly thereafter to become digital government, though Martha referred to it all as “government online services”) in November 2010.  The recommendations were not particularly new but they were tightly focused and provided the impetus to set up GDS and give it a power that had previously not been available to either a Cabinet Office technology-led function or, I think, any other cross-government technology-led team.

Handily, the EU have published their “Digital Economy and Society Index 2019“, and there’s a specific report on the UK.  Perhaps the last one of these that we will see.  The upside of that is that we may be top of the table in the next one that we self-publish, if only because it will be a table of one.

What, then, have we accomplished?  I’m afraid it doesn’t make for good reading.

We rank 11th overall in the EU.  The authors kindly say that this is “showing a somewhat above average performance.”  I take that to mean that given there are 27 member states, we are just above the mid-point.  If you were to measure performance by GDP, or by capital invested, or by expectation of position, I’m quite sure that this is a well below average performance.

It gets worse.  We are 18th for online service completion and a woeful 27th for pre-filled forms.  Put to one side the idea that “forms” are still the vernacular more than 20 years after we started down the online path.

Our best ranking, by far, is “digital public services for businesses” – I may be biased but I would put that down to the original work by HMRC as far back as 2001 followed up by good work by Companies House (which chose to do things their own way but nevertheless did a very good job – far above average one might say).  It is perhaps interesting to note that GDS has never paid much attention to business transactions – Verify ignores businesses (in the too hard box), the work with RPA around payments to farmers was abandoned after a disastrous launch etc.  And yet there we are in 2nd place.

Who’s first?

Estonia I hear you cry.

Would be a good guess.  They’re 2nd.  Finland is first.

Estonia is let down by open data (where they are 25th); Finland is let down by digital public services for businesses (16th) and open data (19th).

There are some lessons to learn here.  Trouble is we just never seem to learn them.