The Conservative government has, for the best part of a decade, been fixated on the debt the country has got itself into. In his Spring Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that national debt stood at a figure of nearly £1.7 trillion with an interest cost alone of £50bn a year. He reaffirmed his party’s commitment to reduce this debt as a priority.
Inevitably this will require further sweeping cuts throughout the public sector, which, in turn, will require even greater efficiencies to be found over the coming years if services are to be maintained at current levels, let alone improved upon.
Against this backdrop it seems unfathomable that any waste in the public sector could possibly go unnoticed or be allowed to continue unabated once identified. But it has come to our notice that potentially competing ICT projects have been developed within two government departments with what looks like very similar purpose.
Our thanks must go to Tony Collins and his really insightful website at https://ukcampaign4change.com for bringing this subject to light and to our attention.
Are these wasted opportunity costs?
Why is it that two huge separate government departments seem to be working on similar problems, producing two independent systems that both seem to have the foundations to do a very similar job?
If you want to log on to any public services online you will first be required to prove that you are who you say you are – to go through an identity verification process. For many years, that has meant using something called the ‘Government Gateway’. Reported opinions on this system have ranged from it being a little on the cumbersome side to it being ‘utterly insecure’.
In fairness, a new system was long overdue. Based on the insights provided by Tony Collins in his recent article, it seems that both the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and HMRC have decided to produce their own system. On the face of it, both of these have the foundations to replace the old Government Gateway.
The HMRC has decided to update Government Gateway, and the GDS has produced Verify. Government Gateway has been designed for both individual and corporate verification and Verify, at the moment, is purely for individuals. Confusion reigns because of the obvious crossover. It has also been reported that the departments are at odds with one another in what’s been described by one BBC correspondent as a ‘bitter turf war’ to have their own systems adopted as the definitive solution.
Collins writes: “It’s ludicrous that central government is spending billions on IT annually without a joined-up approach. Ministers keep promising it. Officials at conferences keep promising it. Whitehall press releases promise it.”
He surmises that the reason for such a lack of joined up thinking may lie at the doors of the relevant permanent secretaries and departmental boards, though he does not expect change to come about anytime soon. He writes: “That a genuine joined-up approach to government IT has been talked about for decades and hasn’t happened is largely because, outside of determining of the size of budgets, it is the permanent secretaries and their senior officials who hold power in Whitehall, not transient politicians.
He further comments “bureaucracies always want to keep their departmental empires as intact as possible.”
Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology Correspondent for the BBC, attempts to offer some clarity on the subject. On the announcement by the HMRC of their own system, they mentioned that “other departments will use gov.uk Verify for all individual citizen services”. This was underlined by information contained within a recent HMRC blog article where it stated that this “would be restricted to business and agent-facing services only as Cabinet Office requires all other departments to use gov.uk Verify.”
The launch by the HMRC of what may well end up as a competing system will complicate matters for Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office. He only recently announced that they were aiming for Verify to have 25 million users by the end of 2020. However, as many of those users would have been generated through having HMRC as a customer not a competitor, this may no longer be an achievable target.
We have written numerous articles of late about shared services, collaboration between departments to save time and money with shared wisdom, lessons learned, trusted suppliers and favourable multi-client agreements to achieve better value from complex service suppliers.
Many projects over the last few years have chosen this road, with varying levels of success. But the need for greater cooperation between public sector entities is clear. The ‘silo’ effect is only ever going produce situations such as the one we have focused on here – what seems to be a potentially blinkered ambition leading to fundamentally competing systems where a single one could have been adapted for both uses.
As austerity takes another bite out of the funds allocated to most government departments in post-Spring Budget Britain, more must be done to ensure joined-up thinking between departments if they hope to allocate their dwindling coffers to best effect.
Which verification system will win out between Government Gateway and Verify, we’ll have to wait and see, but should the implications revealed in articles by the Campaign4Change and the BBC be accurate, it is certainly time for better communication between government entities so this sort of thing does not happen again in the future.
Photo Credit: NiseriN, istock