Tuesday 23 April 2013

GDS are drowning. Time to launch the lifeboats

17 April 2013, Welcoming DWP to GOV.UK:
Today we welcome the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to GOV.UK.

DWP is the 21st department to move to the Inside Government section of GOV.UK. It has joined Inside Government with almost 900 publications, 9 new policies, a host of case studies, and detailed guidance on Universal Credit and workplace pensions.
That's what it says on the Government Digital Service (GDS) blog. What does it mean?

GDS are meant to be creating a single government domain. Taking DWP as an example, all of their web content should now appear under https://www.gov.uk (known as "GOV.UK"), and their old website, http://www.dwp.gov.uk, should have disappeared.

When GDS welcome DWP to GOV.UK does that mean that http://www.dwp.gov.uk has disappeared?

One way to find out. Do a test.

This test is suggested by last week's Private Eye, #1338.

Go to DWP's State Pension if you retire abroad page. That's on GOV.UK alright. Under You’ve only worked in the UK click on online and you are taken to an http://www.dwp.gov.uk page. That shouldn't exist any more – like HMRC, DWP has been only partially welcomed to GOV.UK, the rest of it is still in its old principal primary residence.

Take a look at that DWP page.
This service doesn’t work with some modern browsers and operating systems. Tell me more
We are considering how best to provide this service in future.
You may want to claim in another way.
So much for public services becoming digital by default. It is GDS's job to make it possible for people to claim on-line:
  • To do that, GDS want to replace the Government Gateway with something better. They may want to but they haven't.
  • They have also promised to provide identity assurance services so that applicants can be identified. They may have promised to but they haven't.
GDS have left DWP no alternative but to tell claimants that "you may want to claim in another way".

Click on the Tell me more link on the DWP page above. You are greeted with:
What do I need?

This page explains:
  • what software you need to use this service
  • how to print your transaction
  • how the service uses cookies.
If you use Jaws or Supernova screen readers, we apologise for any problems you may experience. You may wish to claim in another way.

Operating systems and browsers
The service does not work properly with Macs or other Unix-based systems even though you may be able to input information.
You are likely to have problems if you use Internet Explorer 7, 8, 9 and 10, Windows Vista or a smartphone. Clearing temporary internet files may help but you may wish to claim in another way.

There is also a high risk that if you use browsers not listed below, including Chrome, Safari or Firefox, the service will not display all the questions you need to answer. This is likely to prevent you from successfully completing or submitting the form. You may wish to claim in another way.

What the service was designed to work with
The service was designed to work with the following operating systems and browsers. Many of these are no longer available.
Microsoft Windows 98:
  • Internet Explorer versions 5.0.1, 5.5 and 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2
Microsoft Windows ME
  • Internet Explorer version 5.5 and 6.0
  • Netscape 7.2
[and so it goes on ...]
GDS have a project called "assisted digital" which is meant to help people unfamiliar with the web to use it to communicate with the government. What are these people to make of the page above?

What is anyone to make of it?

As far as the Government Gateway is concerned, someone has designed an alternative and Mr Toby Stevens has kindly provided a recent progress report, Real Time Identity?. The alternative gateway depends on identity assurance services (IDA), which GDS have failed to provide, and on a number of communications hubs:
In the IDA model, the government provides a number of ‘federation hubs’, which provide the data-matching, anonymisation and audit services to support interaction between a market of identity providers (IDPs) and the government departments that will consume identity information.
If communication between claimants and government departments is to be anonymous, it's hard to see how transactions can be audited. If, on the other hand, transactions can be audited, then how can communication be anonymous?

Mr Stevens, it should be said, is not responsible for this dilemma, he is merely reporting it.

While this dilemma of GDS's persists there is nothing the UK's eight so-called "identity providers" (IDPs) can do. They only have an 18-month exclusive contract. Their time is running out. Soon they could face competition from the banks and the phone companies and Google and Facebook and Twitter and ... with nothing to show for all their efforts to date.

And while DWP and the IDPs are suffering this frustration what are GDS doing?

Apart from publishing self-congratulatory blog posts about partially re-writing websites, GDS are working on individual electoral registration (IER).

They have been retained to see if the electoral register can be made more complete and accurate by cross-referencing it to DWP's national insurance number (NINO) database.


You would expect that job to be given to a university or to one of the credit referencing agencies or maybe to one of the management consultancies. GDS are website designers. They have no special expertise in data-matching.

Nor do GDS have the time. They've got work to do on identity assurance and the Government gateway and assisted digital. They don't have time to work on IER as well.

What's more, this cross-referencing is illegal.

And further, the IER pilot studies GDS have taken part in demonstrate that, legal or not, cross-referencing isn't going to help.

The exercise is matching no more than 72% of the people on the electoral register to the people on the NINO database. That's even worse than the Identity & Passport Service achieved with biometrics. It's a waste of time. Someone should call a halt now. But, no, GDS are due to conduct an illegal, pointless and nationwide IER cross-referencing exercise this summer.

The National Audit Office has noticed the problem and so has Parliament – an early day motion has been put down to debate digital-by-default. Someone in the upper echelons of the civil service must have noticed these deficiencies. Some ministers may even have noticed – GDS are drowning. Time to launch the lifeboats and bring them back to shore and to safety.

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