The UK Government was a platform pioneer. It was amongst the first to understand the potential of platforms in the design and delivery of public services—to improve how public service providers and users could interact with each other.
Early in the move to put public sector information and services online, the UK recognised that many have similar requirements. This led to the development of shared platforms—technology that could be implemented once and then re-used many times across organisations and services, rather than each organisation and service creating its own duplicate system (as in the pre-internet era).
2000 and the development of Government platforms
From late 2000 onwards, the UK created a series of shared, cross-government platforms. These platforms used open standards and open APIs to ease their integration and interoperability across both private and public sector organisations and systems. They included:
In 1994, the Government Information Service was launched, the first UK cross-government website. In 2001 it was replaced with UKonline; by Directgov in 2004 (along with the BusinessLink site to meet business needs); and by GOV.UK in October 2012
Providing identification, single sign-in and authentication services for citizens, businesses and intermediaries (those acting on behalf of others). Authentication used a range of credentials, from user ID and password to digital certificates to (later) EMV chip and PIN cards and multi-factor authentication. It supported both the government’s own single sign-on and authentication service as well as services provided by trusted third parties such as Royal Mail and Equifax.
Orchestrating transactions between citizens and government, businesses and government, and between departments. This enabled the design and delivery of joined-up services for users, even where existing systems and processes remained siloed in multiple departments. It included Departmental Integration Servers to interface and interoperate with departments’ existing systems
Handling two-way secure communication between departments and citizens, similar to the way many banks provide secure online messaging on their websites
Handling in-bound payments to government
These platforms could be used separately, or in combination, to provide integrated services for users.
By 2003, using ‘Invest to Save Budget’ (ISB) funding, a range of additional pilots were underway to enrich the existing platforms, including:
A repository of government forms: schema, style sheets, etc.
A repository for storing a user’s data from part-completed forms
Personalisation stored a citizens’ preferences to personalise their experience while using online services. Circumstances provided a repository for citizens’ details (e.g. Forename, Surname, Address, Date of Birth, etc.) to pre-populate and auto-complete online forms with verified personal data
A central repository for rules and calculations (e.g. for welfare, taxation, etc.)
Users could choose how to receive notifications, such as a status update on a welfare claim, through their channel of choice (SMS, email, fax, etc.)
These platforms were designed in a privacy sensitive way: they enabled a user to have access to and control over their personal details, with the ability to authorise their selective disclosure if and when needed, including to pre-populate forms.
The mix of platforms provided individual personalisation of services and applied personal data stored in the user’s circumstances store. Since users’ data was validated and authenticated at the time it was acquired and stored, it also aimed to improve data quality.
The aspiration was to eventually eliminate forms: they were an out-dated hangover from the analogue paper era. In future, a user’s existing data could help to automate the determination and delivery of services, moving from a “pull” model (where users needed to apply for services via online or paper forms), to a “push” one (where users’ existing data could be used, with their consent, to determine the services to which they were entitled).
As early as 2002, this mature platform landscape was already being acknowledged:
“The UK has been in the vanguard of developing common IT architectures, and was ahead of most of the benchmark group in developing the IT core to enable secure transactions with citizens“The World’s Most Effective Policies for the e-Economy. International e-Economy Benchmarking (19 November 2002. Booz, Allen, Hamilton)
Two decades on, it’s disappointing that this early lead was later squandered—being ignored, overlooked, misunderstood or sidelined by some of those who later took charge. As a result, the UK has gone backwards in the intervening period and is years behind where it could have been.
The idea of government platforms has however recently been revived by the Government Digital Service. The new platforms developed or planned largely mirror those that existed decades ago, such as notifications, identity and single sign-in.
It’ll be interesting to see how well these latest platforms are adopted across the public sector—and whether this time they thrive and survive.
The diagram of select government platforms in 2003 was updated in early November 2021 to show that: trusted third parties, such as Royal Mail and Equifax, were providing identification and authentication services alongside the government’s own user ID and password; that the notifications platform was live; that the payments platform was live. Note that the Government Gateway supported both in-house and external trusted credentials, acting as a standards-based pluggable hub supporting a range of providers and technologies: later on this was to include chip and PIN (EMV) cards and two-factor authentication.