a tale of two countries: the digital disruption of government

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My Australian colleague, Marie Johnson, and I have drafted a paper for this month’s Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management (CAPAM) conference being held in Putrajaya, Malaysia. It looks at government endeavours in the UK and Australia over the last 20 or so years to use technology to improve our public services.

You can download a copy of the paper (PDF) here — A Tale of Two Countries – Fishenden and Johnson.

Due to a diary conflict, I won’t be attending to co-present the paper, but Marie will be there to narrate and debate our ‘tale of two countries’.

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Posted in IT, IT strategy, open government, public services, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

updated Identity Assurance Principles for the UK Government

We’ve been making good progress at the Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group (PCAG) on reviewing the work of various government departments — everything from the Identity Assurance Programme (IDAP), to the “big data” work of the Office of National Statistics, to the “data sharing” proposals, to electoral transformation and other programmes.

I’d like to acknowledge the very open way that most of the government teams have engaged with PCAG — and that even where discussions may have become “full and frank” they have always remained constructive. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has also been very supportive of our work, part of the reason its scope has expanded considerably from our earlier focus on identity assurance.

Of course, as an independent advisory group we don’t have any “power” in the sense of a veto over the work of the various government departments — but in general most people we’ve engaged with have understood the sense in applying best privacy and security principles to their work, rather than leaving it full of holes or subject to large-scale public suspicion. It helps that the government’s Technology Code of Practice has as part of its Point 6 the requirement that “Users should have access to, and control over, their own personal data.” Indeed, some programmes — such as the NHS care.data programme — might have avoided some of their problems if they’d observed this policy in the first place…

We’ve just formally submitted our updated Identity Assurance Principles (.pdf) to the UK Government’s IDAP team. They will provide their public response in due course once they’ve had time to consider them and their impact on their work. These updated Principles follow on from PCAG’s earlier work, and our subsequent open consultation.

Posted in identity, open government, privacy, public services, security, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

more work required: on ‘big govt IT’, ‘transactions’ and the future of public service design

I posted online recently some headline stats comparing the relative scale of UK banking transaction volumes with UK government transaction volumes. They sparked a healthy debate about the nature of ‘transactions’ and the complexity of processing required of a transaction embedding a complex welfare claim form relative to one for a simple financial exchange.

Neither the estimate of total UK banking transactions per annum nor the estimated number of UK government transactions seem reliable in my original post (one commentator suggesting that for just one of the government services the true figure was of a magnitude 7x greater than that shown on the Govt Transactions Explorer). Also, some is inevitably double-counting: something may start as an HMRC payment and then become a banking transaction, so there’s a degree of mutual inter-dependence in such figures.

After much internal debate, I decided to pull that original infographic  — to prevent the propagation of something potentially misleading without a proper context. Irritatingly, LinkedIn removed all the subsequent comments too — if I’d know that, I’d have left it there. Mea culpa and many apologies to those who contributed: luckily I was keeping a summary of the comments since they raised many useful points which I wanted to capture, so they are not entirely lost.

So, important lesson learned … and to return to my original point, which was about the relative scale of government IT compared to what is happening in other areas, comparative stats like these in my replacement graphic make a point about scale whilst still skirting the issue of comparative transactional complexity:

transaction stats

Or on the sheer scale of what the overall internet is now handling (or, at least, was handling in 2012…):

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 10.51.17(source: mashable.com/2012/11/27/email-stats-infographic/. Retrieved: 12.07.2014)

Usefully, within the 1.15bn HMRC transactions of the first graphic above, the Transactions Explorer lets us drill down to see what ‘transactions’ make up this total. And to drill down again into each specific service. It’s a very useful tool — we need to see much more of this transparency and insight. Letting the sunshine in should also help resolve issues of associated data quality — addressing the points raised that some of the data appears to be underestimating what actually currently happens.

My original point was not intended to be specifically about the nature of transactions (which after all range through the gamut of ISO 20022 domains of Payments, Securities, Trade services, Cards and FX to the GovTalk Envelope [PDF] ), but about the scale of government IT in the digital era. Implicit was also a much bigger question about whether, with a proper data architecture and redesigned public services, many of these transactions are even necessary — combined with the question of how best we architect it all (an issue usefully discussed in this blog post by Stefan Czerniawski).

Many current government ‘transactions’ are merely automated versions from the old paper world, moving electronic versions of forms from one place to another — either literally, or by mimicking the form online in a series of interminable web pages that ape the paper world. We can throw all the tin and software we like at these ‘digital forms’, but it’s not going to do much to improve the quality, efficiency, or relevance of the services involved.

The more challenging issue is how we ensure these processes and services (and indeed the organisations behind them) are re-thought and redesigned for the digital age. In the same way that distributing a text document to multiple contributors and then trying to reconcile all their comments and changes (now scattered across multiple forked copies of the original document) is being superseded by a model where documents are collaborated on online in a single place and not sent around at all, there is enormous scope for a smarter data architecture. One that moves away from mirroring the capture or flow of online equivalents of paper documents to one oriented around data and capturing the delta for specific services — such as welfare or tax — rather than the entire data set time after time for each service and functional business silo.

So yes — to start with ‘transactions’ or technology being used to automate what is there is to start in entirely the wrong place. Many ‘government transactions’ (and potentially some government organisations and agencies) could potentially be dramatically improved, or perhaps even obsoleted entirely, with better designed public services. As I’ve commented on before, the poor design of many public service processes and associated paper forms are as socially unacceptable as the same poorly-designed services delivered on to a screen. So some of the more complex ‘transactions’ that people commented upon — such as case management work — raise the wider question about the overall design of public services, and why such things are being sent around in the first place, effectively using technology to fossilise the way things were done in the paper age.

I started from the perspective that whilst once governments were often amongst the users of ‘big’ technology (in terms of scale and speed), others now have claimed that crown. More importantly, that government could learn from the best of what has happened elsewhere — and use technology as a lever to redesign our public services, not merely to automate them in their current state. That’s part of the narrative I was discussing in my recent CIO piece ‘The birth of the composable enterprise‘.

Improving our public services requires the re-evaluation, redesign and re-engineering of its organisations on every level – people, process, technology and governance. This was implicit in the comment on the LinkedIn (RIP — grrrr, lesson learned) thread: ‘Maybe the question is how many should the UK Govt be doing and not looking at what they are doing’. Those who commented that the debate about ‘transactions’ is ‘one dimensional’ and missing more important wider issues are entirely right: it’s time we had that wider and much more difficult debate — something Mark Thompson for example raises in his ComputerWeekly piece ‘Where is the long-term political vision for digital public services?‘.


Posted in future Britain, IT, IT strategy, open government, public services, social exclusion, social inclusion, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

high level cross-government architecture — 2003 style

I tweeted recently a couple of old IT architectural schematics from 2003. They provide an interesting (historical) perspective on how to bring existing government systems into the world of online services.

Following a few requests, I thought I might as well follow-up by blogging in a bit more detail about those schematics here — given the subject remains highly topical.

Back in 2003, the aim was to reach consensus on a cross-government technical architecture that would provide the right balance between centrally provided  and department provided components. In 2003, the open standards of e-GIF (the e-Government Interoperability Framework) prevailed and the default data format for inter-system interoperability was XML (the extensible Markup Language).

The “Vision” from 2003 is shown below.

online service vision 2003

The high level architecture behind this vision is shown below.

conceptual x-government viewIt’s fairly self-explanatory at this level — with several core elements shown down the righthand side (management and operations; data interoperability [XML]; security framework; metadata framework), and four key technical layers to the left: data sources; data access; business, logic and workflow; and UI components and processes.

This is expanded a little more in the view that follows.

x-govt conceptual more detailed

The top tier makes clear the multi-channel strategy and the way government services were envisaged as being delivered through a whole range of different organisations: from government to businesses to the voluntary sector, and through a variety of devices.

Web services were to provide the common, open standards for how the various online government services could be delivered via public interfaces. At the “common services” tier a range of modular components (from authentication to payments to notifications) were to exist, providing a flexible way of pulling common components together in the design of frontline services. Behind this, a similar open layer of web services existed which would use XML to proprietary integration mechanisms to connect into existing systems — be they public or private sector — needed in the design and delivery of online services.

For this approach to work, both departments and the centre needed to agree standards for the web services to be exposed by departments. The integration between XML and existing systems — to enable that integration — also needed to be resolved to ensure consistent delivery. There would need to be a way of reliably orchestrating processes both at the central government level (for cross-government orchestration of multi-departmental services) and at the department level (cross-system).

At the centre, the Government Gateway (which became an umbrella term for a range of component services — primarily identity and authentication, transaction orchestration, payments, and departmental integration services), acted as a broker, ensuring all calls were made through the same common architecture and endpoints. This included defining common standards in areas such as naming conventions, error handling responses and so on, together with the XML schema, meta content etc of the actual SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) methods and calls used for the interaction of content and services.

At what has often proved the most intractable and complex layer — that of bridging the gap between existing systems and online services — three elements came into play:

  • custom adaptors (specific integration tools for e.g. a mainframe)
  • web services interfaces surfaced via the adaptors and exposing data and methods through native XML/SOAP
  • associated process logic to ensure data and application integrity

backend integrationThis approach enabled a variety of existing systems to be bridged into the open, web services world. Of course, this was meant to be a transitive stage and not something to fossilise and preserve existing systems, enabling them to live on forever. It was intended to be a pragmatic way of taking early benefits in a massively diverse brownfield environment whilst a parallel programme could begin to re-engineer and re-architect backend processes, data, systems and their owning organisations into something better suited to twenty-first century government services.

backend transition

This secondary stage foresaw the assessment, transformation, re-factoring and web-enablement of these older systems — with an end goal of removing older backend systems and disaggregating and componentising them to enable departments to redesign and improve their services free of the restrictions of their inherited IT estate.

The illustration below shows conceptually how this architectural approach would enable the central orchestration of a service across multiple departments, with each of those departments in turn tackling local integration across their multiple backend systems.

x-govt orchestrationAn alternative view of the central components/local integration model is shown below, illustrating the role of common, re-usable components in the overall architecture and service design model.

common components A more detailed breakdown of the layers of the model is shown below.

detailed layers

Returning to a higher level perspective, the schematic below shows how the various components comprising the Government Gateway provided the realisation of some of this vision.

GG enablers

Note the existence of a “virtual department” to the right of the picture: this was a major concept at the time. Rather than trying to fix all of the historic issues of existing systems, data, processes and organisational hierarchies, the proposition was to create ‘virtual departments’ that would provide a way of exposing new services built around citizens’ and businesses’ needs rather than merely projecting the existing departmental service structures onto the internet. These would enable the development and design of better services — but, over time, they would also build out the future of government, at which point the existing systems could be switched off. More ambitiously, they would also enable the potential reconfiguration of government itself as it would no longer be tied down by information systems that had fossilised the historic business units and hierarchical functional silos of the departments and agencies in which they had been designed and deployed.

Some 11 years on, there remains considerable healthy debate about the best architectural models for government — across business, information and technical levels, and indeed the wider organisational configuration of government itself. At the polar extremes are opposing technical perspectives on the merits of emergent solutions and approaches versus imposed blueprints, and of centralised versus federated models.

As with most of these things, neither extreme in itself will prevail: good systems, successful technology and well-designed user services tend to involve a shifting blend of models and approaches. But hopefully I’m not alone in finding it useful to document the journey we’re on — and the road already travelled.

Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, privacy, public services, security, technology, technology policy | Tagged | 1 Comment

20 years of “online government” 101. Part 4: approaches to social inclusion

This is part 4 in my occasional blog summarising the past 20 years or so of UK efforts to move government online. The previous parts provided summaries on progress towards a single online presencea high-level summary of the overall architectural thinking and a look at approaches to identity.

In this one, I’ll take a similar (and equally arbitrary) whistle-stop tour of some of the main developments around the topic of social inclusion/exclusion related to the use of information technology. It sketches in a few more details behind my CIO article ‘Truly digital social inclusion‘ — and like my other blogs, makes no pretence at being comprehensive.

Much of this debate orbits around self-evident distinctions made between the public and private sectors: in particular, that the private sector can decide on its target audience and be selective (if it wishes) about with whom it chooses to interact. It may for example choose to target only a specific segment of a market (the rich, the young, the gullible, etc.). The public sector however provides universal services, potentially available to us all. With that exclusive, monopoly-provider status comes enormous responsibility — given that it’s not possible for citizens to obtain most public services elsewhere.

e-govt-POSTThis was recognised back in 1998, in a review of government use of IT by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology:

“… government and business have different motives and constituents, so it would be naive to expect the applications of ICT in business to be mirrored exactly in government. There are also a number of areas of concern over the potential wider use of ICT in government, including issues such as privacy, vulnerability of a public electronic infrastructure to crime, acts of war and terrorism, potential abuses of civil rights, and social cohesion versus social exclusion. How to gain the benefits of ICT in the public sector while avoiding the pitfalls is an important policy question for Departments, Government as a whole and Parliament.”

Ever since the first efforts to use technology to put government services online in the 1990s, there’s been a political focus on the concept of social exclusion caused by what has been termed a ‘digital divide': public services need to be available to all, and yet with the increasing adoption of technology in all aspects of our daily lives, the concern is that some less tech-savvy citizens are becoming, or will become, disadvantaged.

Government Direct

The 1996 Government Direct green paper made clear that it was aware of and intended to tackle this issue:

“All of the services will be accessible and easy to use. They will be available via terminals, either in the home or in convenient public places such as libraries, post offices and shopping centres. And they will be available alongside a full range of other services, including Citizen’s Charter information, thus providing an electronic “one-stop-shop” for Government. They will provide interactive guidance as users work through questionnaires and forms, making them simpler and quicker to use than paper-based forms. The services could also be available over an extended working day and at weekends, and for 24 hours a day, seven days a week where appropriate. Responses will be as near to immediate as practicable, and where an immediate response is not available, it will be possible to obtain electronic reports of progress. The services will be linked so that it will not normally be necessary to tell government the same information (for example, about a change of address) more than once.”

Touchscreen kiosks in public places were seen as one of the main ways in which access to online services would be made universal, even to those without access to technology in their homes or workplaces. The plan was that they would be found in public places, from libraries to Post Offices to Job Centres to banks and supermarkets. In hindsight, many of these earlier government documents seriously underestimated the speed and spread of the internet, and in particular the growth of mobile devices as a means of access in place of earlier assumptions about PCs and fixed line connectivity.

The review of government use of IT by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 1998 recognised the

“important role for Government in stewarding the development of an inclusive information society. A central recommendation is that local community ‘resource centres’ should be established, providing a publicly accessible means of conducting business electronically. Clearly, Government would be an important provider of information and services through such an infrastructure — and might be by far the most significant one in the case of disadvantaged communities.

Government’s role [is] as both potential contributor to and mitigator of this problem. Here, the two main factors are access … and behaviour … Thus, while Government has several options for providing a range of methods of access to reach every sector of society, these would be wasted if people don’t actually use them and exclude themselves from society. An interesting dimension to the issue of information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the potential scenario that some have suggested of government itself being an information ‘have not’ and thus incapable of acting to safeguard the interests of the wider population against the minority of ‘haves’”

Methods of access were foreseen as spanning:

POST table

One of the most comprehensive reviews of online users’ needs and social inclusion was the ‘View from the Queue’ study and report of 1998, which appears to be one of the few government papers to have conducted extensive citizen and business research in order to inform its conclusions.

View from the Queue

Importanty, the ‘View from the Queue’ recognises a simple reality that often seems to have been overlooked:

“Services can, of course, deploy technology in other ways that do not impact on the customer at the point of interface.”

However, at times there seems to have been a less valid view of technology, one of trying to miscast its role solely as one of ‘screen-based’ delivery of services, rather than about its more important role in re-engineering the processes, systems, structures, organisations and role of government. Such sidelining of technology into a superficial presentational role does little to help inform the underlying topic of social inclusion and how better to design public services to meet their universal requirements. The ‘View from the Queue’ however set out a more inclusive and comprehensive range of improvements that could impact on social inclusion, including:

    • simplifying procedures and documentation
    • reducing time taken queuing or waiting
    • minimising referrals between officials
    • eliminating interactions which fail to yield outcomes
    • extending contact opportunities beyond office hours
    • improving relationships with the public

It also foresaw the potential for electronic government services to improve four key areas:

    • speed of carrying out transactions
    • convenience/access
    • flexibility in options and hours of service
    • empowerment (bring services closer to the public and allowing them to choose how/when to carry out transactions).

It also sought to allay concerns about technology and how it will be used by government … by:

    • ensuring ‘confidentiality’ or privacy in interacting with government
    • providing safeguards against fraud or computer hacking
    • providing guarantees about government’s use of information
    • providing assistance and support to users

One of the many surveys it conducted examined how likely people were to use online government services:

View from the Queue survey

16 years later, the recent GDS-published survey provides an interesting comparison:

GDS survey

Different elements of the ‘View from the Queue’ research indicated that widespread public confidence in new services would only be achieved by:

  • improving existing services or offering benefits to users that they do not get at present. Both the qualitative research and interviews with large businesses point out that there is little point in merely replacing existing services/transactions with a new electronic version, described by one qualitative respondent as potentially ‘moving the queue from the counter to a kiosk’
  • allaying concerns about technology and how it will be used by government.

Its qualitative research identified a number of improvements desired in regard to existing services:

  • the simplification of procedures and documentation (e.g. forms), where this is possible
  • reducing the time taken queuing or waiting and the amount of referral between different officials or offices and trying to eliminate interactions which do not lead to an outcome
  • greater flexibility of means of making contact and greater opportunities for contacting government outside of ‘normal’ office hours
  • improving relationships with the public; in particular there is a feeling that services are currently set up to suit the government’s needs, rather than the public’s, and this can lead to a sense of powerlessness. The Desk Research confirms that this is a widespread perception of many public services.

There’s also a whole range of qualitative feedback and comments, which include the following nuggets:

“Filling out forms was felt to be particularly complicated and time consuming”

“Contacting government departments by telephone was described as being lengthy, frustrating and sometimes costly. The respondents described being held in telephone queues, passed to several different departments and not obtaining answers to queries as being particularly frustrating.”

“In dealing with a person face-to-face it was claimed that one would have wait in a queue, often in a post office or government offices, e.g. DSS office. The DSS office in particular was described as being a particularly undesirable place to queue.”

“The lack of accountability, i.e. no one person taking responsibility for queries/applications etc.”

“Whilst the respondents claimed that it was always appealing to save money, it was not of importance towards use. The respondents felt that the most important factors towards use would be to offer something that was easier and quicker than the existing method.”

“The existing transactions with government were seen as being complicated and time consuming. In some cases, respondents described feelings of humiliation and irritation with regard to previous dealings with government.”

“Interestingly, respondents were surprised that with the amount of technology available, the application procedures were still very lengthy. These comments centred around the technology supporting government staff, ie their own computer systems, rather than the electronic government offering.

Possible solutions to such (long familiar) issues included:

“The need to provide a service, with particular reference to accountability of staff, i.e. one person dealing with a query rather than being dealt with by several people and departments.”

And direct feedback from respondents includes the following statements:

“Simplify it. Ninety per cent of forms are not user friendly. Most forms are designed for lawyers and accountants.”

“It is so unprofessional, maybe they should link up to computers, it is behind the times.”

“… electronic government services could ‘free-up’ staff time to deal with queries of a more complicated and sensitive nature.”

“I think with all this technology and they still can’t manage to do this (obtaining a passport quickly).”

For those who had a problem with their last contact with government services, the two top reasons cited were:

    • Staff were not helpful/lacked knowledge
    • Staff were slow in dealing with the transaction

Over half of benefits claimants found it difficult to fill in the forms, with nearly half saying they needed help to fill them in. Half found communicating in writing difficult and half found filling in forms difficult.

“Face-to-face or telephone contact was perceived as being easier than written communication and form filling (there are issues of literacy here that are not explored in the research). Eighty-five per cent found it easy to communicate face-to-face and 70 per cent found it easy by telephone. “

Portal Feasibility

In 1999, the Portal Feasibility Study, made some more specific recommendations:

“The Portals must support Government policies for social inclusion and therefore a wide range of channels will be needed which will collectively appeal to all sectors of the user community.

From the channel media perspective, potential ‘portal’ delivery channels were categorised as:

    • Direct electronic channels, for example internet access through a customer’s PC, interactive television or kiosk
    • Voice telephony channels where the customer contacts a call centre agent by telephone who is able to communicate with the Portal using a direct electronic channel
    • Face-to-face channels where the customer interacts directly with an agent who is able to communicate with the Portal using a direct electronic channel, for example with a Post Office counter clerk or Bank teller.”

The UKOnline initiative from around 2000 made a concerted effort to address issues of social inclusion, investing substantially in areas such as PCs in libraries and potential partnerships with Citizen Advice Bureaux to ensure there were local access points, and in UKOnline centres aimed at helping improve the general skills and capabilities of citizens. The inheritance of these initiatives survives in the network of community internet access points called the ‘UK Online Centres network’, now run by the Tinder Foundation.

e-govt strategy 2000

In 2000, ‘e-Government: a strategic framework for public services in the information age’ commented:

 “The transformation of the way government and citizens interact must be an occasion for increasing social inclusion. It will be an opportunity to address disadvantage which arises from geographical location, to improve communications and employment opportunities. The Government is committed to reducing the digital divide, through the policies developed by the Social Exclusion Unit; through IT learning centres; and in its commitment to improving IT skills and access through the National Grid for Learning, the National Learning Network, learndirect and the Library Network. There are many local programmes in support of these aims too. But spanning the digital divide means more than skills and access, and it has to be accepted that some citizens will not want or will not be able to be direct users of new technologies. That does not mean that this strategy has nothing to offer them. New technology can support better face to face and telephone transactions as well as direct interaction online. A challenge for the public sector will be how to free up staff from internal processes in order to offer more effective interactions, and how to provide front line staff with the skills, information and equipment they need to act as intermediaries in this new environment.

The bold above (my emphasis) holds true now — and provides insight into the true potential offered by digital, not merely the simplistic notion of serving up existing services onto a screen. This is precisely why we need to ensure the move to digital gets it right where previous initiatives failed: it reflects the more fundamental issues that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology report highlighted in 1998, namely that where IT has been deployed extensively in government

“… this has tended to involve the automation of existing manual procedures based on the movement of paper, and has not reflected the major shift in management practices seen in the commercial world where IT has been used to move away from functional business units and to re-structure organisations around the processes that support the core business.”

It’s clear that social inclusion has been a concern at least since the 1990s and the first attempts to move government services online. But this narrow association with purely technological aspects has at times diluted the focus on the underlying causes of social inclusion — notably the way public services are designed, operated and delivered across multiple channels. As my recent CIO article argues, social inclusion needs to be addressed in the round — across all delivery channels — not become distorted by an isolated obsession about digital inclusion related to adding on-screen delivery as merely another channel for public services delivery.

There are also wider aspects that can be neglected in the move to truly digitally designed and operated public services. For example, the social issues that arise as government begins to manage information better. Take an example such as the potential that exists to provide real-time data to enable detailed geographic mapping of where taxes are generated and welfare disbursed. Poorly managed, certain communities or areas could be stigmatised by such developments (part of this debate started to happen when crime maps first began to be published online) — another reason issues of social inclusion/exclusion need to be considered holistically, not in fragments.

I’ll conclude this post with a paraphrased quote from my CIO piece:

Tackling social inclusion requires the realignment of the entire life-cycle of our public services around citizens’ needs … this important topic must not become sidetracked into a narrow focus on ‘screen-based’ service delivery: the opportunities offered by digital reform can enable the delivery of meaningful, socially-inclusive improvements to the design and operation of our public services – across all of the delivery channels that citizens and businesses use.

Posted in future Britain, IT, IT strategy, open government, public services, social exclusion, social inclusion, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

1999 … summary report on the cross-dept “intelligent forms” project

So, back in 1998, the “intelligent forms” (iForms) project was designed to enable anyone becoming self-employed to complete a single online form instead of 4 separate paper forms, and to submit and sign it using a Nat West smart card. In the background, each of the 3 depts then received the information they required.

This is the summary report from the Cabinet Office’s Central IT Unit (CITU) from early 1999. The iForms project, although apparently successful, seemed to fade away after the pilot phase.


Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, public services, technology, technology policy | 1 Comment

20 years of “online government” 101. Part 3: approaches to identity

This is part 3 in my occasional blog summarising the past 20 years or so of UK efforts to move government online. The previous parts provided summaries on progress towards a single online presence and a similar high-level summary of the overall architectural thinking.

In this one, I’m going to run through some of the key policies and developments around online identity during this same timeframe. So let’s start back in 1996 with the Government Direct green paper, which recognised that:

“…. something like a cash dispenser card is going to be needed for dealing with machines like public access terminals or, in the future, with terminals in the home … for some transactions government may need a higher level of certainty about the identity of an individual than the arrangements used for telephone banking. This could involve the use of “smart cards” … The principle of these cards is the same as the older magnetic stripe cards – a piece of information on the card is combined with another piece of information, like a PIN number, to ensure that the right person is using the service. … The Government intends to carry out evaluations of available systems and conduct trials to find out the type of electronic signature which works best, and which is most convenient for people to use.”

In 1998, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology described the two alternative views of identity that have largely defined the debate ever since:

“The first holds that it is the responsibility of government to provide an official ‘citizens card’ once it expects people to use it to access and validate official transactions – just as it provides other documents such as passports and driving licences. The alternative view is that if there is a ‘market’ for ‘identity’, then it can be met by any number of private means and does not need a single official mechanism which could be portrayed by some as the equivalent of a national identification card. If a unitary approach were taken, an obvious candidate to provide the template for a citizen’s card would be the ‘Benefit Card’ already being introduced and which will need to be held by a significant proportion of the population. In favour of this (if this were to be a smart card) would be the likely efficiency gains through allowing broader functions to be built upon it. Against it could be the possible stigma (whether because of its association with benefit claims or the fact that the original motivation for the card was fraud prevention).”

Several demonstrators and pilot programmes making use of smart cards were developed by the Central IT Unit (CITU) during the mid to late 1990s, including one that modelled potential electronic voting in a London-wide election and another that modelled notifying government once of a change of address. These used Royal Mail’s Viacode and Barclays Bank Endorse smart cards. The logical schematic of the change of address demonstrator, which used XML and other open standards such as HTTPS, LDAP and SMTP, is shown below.

change of address demonstrator

The e-Government Authentication Framework from 2000 had as its focus the problems of ensuring that:

    • a given identity actually exists
    • a person or official of an organisation is the true holder of that identity
    • identity holders are able to identify themselves for the purpose of carrying out a transaction via an electronic medium

It identified the need for government to only release personal or commercially sensitive information against reliably verified identity, to provide services and benefits only to those entitled to receive them and to protect people against misuse of their identities. Its key philosophy was that

“Government will encourage the provision of authentication services by a variety of bodies, including local authorities and the private sector, and will seek to make use of these services wherever possible … Where third-party service providers are conducting transactions on government’s behalf, they will be required to authenticate the citizens and businesses they deal with to the same standards as government itself would. Government will in turn accept transaction data from those service providers, who will certify that they have carried out the authentication transaction to the agreed standard.”

So out of the two potential models outlined in the earlier Government Direct paper, a federated identity model was to be the preferred choice, enabling the development of an identity ecosystem that could tap into existing organisations able to confirm online the identity of individuals. Four levels of trust in terms of the quality of identification required were established:

0 — Informal Transactions
1 — Personal Transactions
2 — Transactions with financial or statutory consequentials
3 — Transactions with substantial financial, statutory or safety consequentials

Each of these levels required a progressively more significant level of registration, authentication and verification services — from none required at Level 0, to full face-to-face initial registration at Level 3 together with the use of “a digital certificate. This will preferably be held in a secure token, such as a smart card. Users will demonstrate their right to that credential through the use of a private key and a password or biometric. The system will authenticate users based on the validity of public key / private key pairs, and on the validity of the credential.

In 2001, the UK Government Gateway was launched, providing a range of transaction management and identity-related services to turn policy into reality. As mentioned in Part 2, the Gateway provided the infrastructure required to connect government into the federated identification and authentication services being provided by third parties via smart cards — such as Barclays Endorse, Royal Mail’s ViaCode and certificates being issued by the British Chambers of Commerce. When the smart card market largely collapsed in the fallout from the dotcom boom and bust, the Gateway ended up primarily using UserIDs and passwords — limiting the level of services that could be used (since UserIDs and passwords were not capable of establishing the levels of trust and authentication possible with smart cards).

The Gateway’s core services were designed to meet various needs including:

    • authentication (we know who the person is)
    • authorisation (we know they are entitled to use the service)
    • the capacity they’re operating in (i.e. their role)
    • varied credential types (userID/password, digital certificate, etc.) issued potentially by various (trusted) parties

It also needed to meet the government’s requirement to support delegated rights:

    • to third parties (agents / intermediaries acting on behalf of people)
    • to assistants within an organisation (subsets of user rights, such as those needed for an employee working on VAT returns within a business)

In addition, it provided reliable, secure, two-way transactional synchronous and asynchronous messaging between citizens, businesses, intermediaries and government — including, where appropriate, the authentication of those messages.

The solution adopted the open standards proposed by the UK government as the way to underpin its e-Government programme and formed part of a wider move towards a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) for government. Key elements of this included:

    • metadata framework: Dublin Core / W3C Resource Description Framework
    • security framework: ISO/IEC 17799:2000 information technology, code of practice for information security management, Common Criteria
    • data interoperability: IETF, W3C, WS-I (including WS-Security), OASIS interoperability standards (eg. XML, SOAP, SAML)
    • management and operations: OGC ITIL

Government Gateway

In 2001, the “E-government strategy framework policy and guidelines: Registration and authentication” addressed security requirements related to the provision of registration and authentication services to support access to e-government services. It defined these two key processes as follows:

    • Registration: This is the process by which a client gains a credential such as a username or digital certificate for subsequent authentication. This may require the client to present proof of real-world identity (such as birth certificate, passport) and/or proof of other attributes depending on the intended use of the credential (eg proof that an individual works for a particular organisation). Registration can be associated with a real-world identity or can be anonymous or pseudonymous.
    • Authentication: The process by which the electronic identity of a client is asserted to, and validated by, an information system for a specific occasion using a credential issued following a registration process. It may also involve establishing that the client is the true holder of that credential, by means of a password or biometric. A client is required to authenticate their electronic identity every time they wish to engage in an UKonline session.

The main purpose of the model was to establish the framework for the federated identity system, setting out the approach to the provision of all or part of e-government services by third parties, including obligations on third parties for registration and authentication. It also set out the various trust models for registration and authentication. It further clarified the requirements both for initial registration and subsequent authentication across a range of government services. An updated version, Version 3, appeared in 2002, and incorporated comments received after a public consultation exercise.

The federated identity model was part of a wider federated approach, one that foresaw a mixed economy in the supply of online government services, with many to be available through third parties (intermediaries) as well as direct from government itself. This was detailed in the 2003 “Policy Framework for a mixed economy in the supply of e-government services” consultation document which aimed to

“… create mixed economy — a marketplace where government, private and voluntary sectors can come together to deliver e-Government services that better meet the demands of our customers. A successful mixed economy will be a force for maintaining the UK’s position as a leading knowledge economy. For this to happen we will need a clear framework for government and intermediaries to participate. This document describes what needs to be done, the opportunities and the principles of intermediary involvement, and the support we are putting in place to drive our agenda … in three years, there will be a mixed economy in the supply of public services, where consumers (citizens & businesses) can engage intermediaries from the public, private or voluntary sectors to use public services in the manner that suits them.”


One such example given is:

“Simple Transaction – Motorist Organisation. A motorist services company might want to add Vehicle Excise Duty (car tax) to their portfolio. Their offer becomes more of a “one-stop-shop” and is likely to increase customer loyalty, or attract new customers to the service.”

(As an aside, this approach is quietly radical in its implications: in this simple example of Vehicle Excise Duty, VED, it has moved the debate from a narrow discussion of better ways of automating current processes within an existing organisational structure, such as DVLA, and is instead evaluating options that would potentially see other players undertake the functions previously done by government. After all, why not let insurance companies collect VED in the same way most other tax collection, such as VAT and PAYE, is already outsourced to retailers, employers etc.? This type of fundamental rethink of how best to achieve outcomes rather than to think within existing constraints has all too often been absent when considering how best to use technology to redesign and re-engineer public services)

Anyhow, back to our story … The Gateway’s identity services were later enhanced to support EMV (the chip and PIN standard developed by Europay, MasterCard and Visa and widely used for for authenticating credit and debit card transactions).

trust framework

trust architecture

In parallel with these developments, and in apparent conflict with the earlier approach to a federated identity model, the government decided to pursue the development of a single national identity card that would be issued by the state. After many years of encouraging the growth of an ecosystem of identity providers and intermediaries, this model would have instead imposed a single identity for use with government services. These proposals for a single identity card formed part of the National Identity Scheme in 2005. It’s outside the scope of these overview 101’s to go into the pros and cons of what was proposed, so for anyone interested in more detail have a look at Wikipedia’s summary. Under the terms of the Identity Documents Act 2010, identity cards ceased to be legal documents on 21 January 2011.

Since the general election in 2010, a familiar model has been proposed, one that returns to the earlier desire for a federated identity system. The Government Digital Service (GDS) is running the identity assurance programme (IDAP) and is both developing the technical standards needed to implement a replacement federated identity model for the Government Gateway (which is due to end providing services in 2016) and putting into place the ecosystem of third party identity providers required to make it happen.

“Identity providers are organisations paid by the government to verify people’s identity so they can sign in securely to government services. Identity providers will have to meet industry security standards and identity assurance standards published by the Cabinet Office and CESG (the UK’s national technical authority). There are currently 5 identity providers — Digidentity, Experian, Mydex, the Post Office and Verizon — eventually there will be more. You can choose to register with more than one of them, and you can stop using an identity provider at any time.”

GDS has also recently announced a further initiative to bring in more identity providers, to further expand the choice open to citizens and businesses in the future.

They have set out 5 reasons for using third party identity service providers rather than doing this from within government:

“1. user choice – you will be able to choose your identity provider(s) and stop using a provider if you want

2. no centralised identity database – instead, to protect users’ privacy, each identity provider will be responsible for securely and separately holding data about the users that have registered with them. Each government department service will only have access to the data it needs.

3. security – using several identity providers is more secure and less vulnerable; there is no single point of failure and no single service that holds all the data in one place

4. developing a market – we’re giving identity providers freedom to design services to meet the standards. This will allow them to develop services that can be used by the wider public and private sector, which will help to reduce costs.

5. making the most of available technology – the technology and methods for identity verification are constantly evolving; specialist private sector organisations are better placed than government to keep up with these developments”

The independent Privacy and Consumer Advisory Group has also been providing guidance and advice to GDS to help ensure they’re designing a service based on user choice, control and privacy — and that there is an easy to use route to fix problems if they arise.

The new identity service is already in live private beta with two exemplar government digital services — HMRC’s PAYE and DVLA’s view driving record service. These are being progressively tested, developed and improved prior to being moved into public beta. The intent is that over the next few years online identity provision will adopt the new federated identity service. Users of the Government Gateway identity services will be progressively migrated to the new service, ahead of the Gateway infrastructure being wound down and eventually decommissioned.

IDAP beta

So, if all goes to plan, over the next few years we should see a modern version of the original federated identity model foreseen back in the 1990s. The technology may have changed from that originally envisaged — of smart cards and PKI — to one of chip and PIN and other potential mechanisms, but the intended outcomes remain largely the same: to enable citizens and businesses to use online government services in a trusted and secure way.

Posted in future Britain, identity, IT, IT strategy, open government, privacy, public services, taxation, technology, technology policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment