Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Trust in the Civil Service 2

Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, wishes to increase the level of trust placed by the public in the civil service. As we have seen.

His chosen method to achieve this objective centres on перестро́йка and гла́сность, i.e. perestroika and glasnost, or innovative transformation and openness, to be delivered by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

We have identified certain problems with the strategy. Among others:
  • GDS have promised the public that all the "identity providers" appointed to GOV.UK Verify (RIP), the replacement for the Home Office's failed ID cards scheme, will be certified trustworthy by independent organisations. They are now breaking that promise, thereby destroying trust in the civil service.
  • GDS offer people the option to register with the Post Office – which is not certified trustworthy – but behind the scenes those people are actually registered by a different "identity provider", digidentity. What does that say about openness?
Sir Jeremy's trust problems aren't limited to GDS.

Companies House have been argued into making access to their data available for free, please see Free Companies House data to boost UK economy from July 2014. The case rests on the unproven hypothesis that doing so would cause the UK economy to grow. Why? Because free access will inspire innovation. Such is the putative magic of open data.

On their live website, you can already download Companies House documents. You have been able to for years. They charge £1 per document, you have to pay before seeing it and it takes some time before the document is available to inspect.

All that Companies House had to do was remove the charging step in the download process.

Instead, they chose to create a brand new website, which is currently being tested. That's the more expensive option, it opens the way to introducing errors and it costs more than just amending the existing website. The test website still hasn't caught up with the facilities available in the live one. Meanwhile, the live website is being deprived of the maintenance attention that it needs. None of which can inspire public trust in the civil service's decision-making.

Although Companies House's test website lags behind the old one in some ways, in others it introduces new facilities. For example, you can choose a particular person and find all the companies which that person is a director or company secretary of.

There's nothing innovative about that. You've been able to do it for years on the DueDil website. Companies House have simply pinched the idea. In doing so, Companies House threaten the viability of DueDil – the Companies House data is free, whereas you have to pay for DueDil.

"Embrace the change", you may say, "it's all for the greater good". But there is no sign of an avalanche of innovation and Companies House can't claim to have caused the UK economy to expand. What the public see is the civil service spoiling a private company's business for no good reason. Quite the opposite of what Sir Jeremy seeks, this is a disincentive to innovation – come up with a good idea, and watch the civil service pinch it. Why bother?

It was August 2014 when DMossEsq warned that making the personal information about millions of company directors available for free, quickly, in bulk increases the risk of identity theft. Undeterred, Companies House went ahead anyway with their little bid for перестро́йка. And now, in the spirit of гла́сность, they have acknowledged the wholly foreseeable problem, please see their blog post Our register: advice on protecting your personal information.

They have acknowledged it and devised a laughable mitigation. They will "suppress the day of the date of birth from [their] output data services for filings from October". Which October is being referred to here is not clear but the day of the date of birth has not been suppressed from the hundreds of millions of returns already available and now you can check as many as you like quickly and for free to discover it.

We know that Companies House aren't fools and it doesn't inspire trust when they pretend that they are ...

... which they do not only in the matter of the day of the date of birth but also in the matter of the £1 fee: "Companies House does not consider that information is more readily available as the result of the removal of the £1 fee to access it. We do not consider that a fee of £1 would deter anyone who wants to access a piece of information".

They know perfectly well that that £1 fee was a deterrent and so does everyone else.

Three people in addition to DMossEsq have commented on the Companies House blog post, expressing their worries about the free companies register becoming a valuable aid to fraud. One commentator has actually been defrauded. It's not just hypothetical. That person compares the Companies House service to Facebook. Unfavourably.

And the result?

The end of openness. Companies House have stopped responding.

"Companies House is an executive agency, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills" – that's what they say on GOV.UK, the award-winning on-line open face of innovatively transformed government in the UK. It's part of the civil service. And its recent initiatives, like GDS's, risk achieving the exact opposite of what Sir Jeremy wants.

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Updated 12.1.17 1

Companies House proudly announce today that Encompass Corporation UK Limited are using free access to Companies House information to provide a know-your-customer service to their fee-paying clients, please see Using Companies House data: Encompass.

"We integrate content from ... providers of company, property and person information into Encompass products", say Encompass, "see the full list on our information providers page":

see full list ... no results found
In the old days, DueDil or whoever would have paid Companies House for this information. Now Companies House receive nothing. That's progress, the open data way.


Updated 12.1.17 2

Surprisingly, the new Companies House company information website is still "in beta", as they say, it's still regarded as a test, it's not technically a "live" service yet:

BETA This is a trial service — your feedback will help us to improve it.

You can't rush the digital transformation revolution. You know that.

You also know that Companies House make all their information available for free. Except they don't:

This document is currently unavailable, a copy can be ordered from the Contact Centre. Telephone +44 (0)303 1234 500. There is a £3.00 charge per document.

Some information is free, some isn't. Why the difference? There is no explanation.

The digital transformation of UK public services makes everything on-line by default. You know that.

Except it doesn't. You have to ring up Companies House and explain what you want to a human being who then takes your credit card details (so much for the GOV.UK Pay platform) and your email address and some time later the document turns up in your inbox ...

... followed by a hard copy invoice that arrives in the post after a few days (so much for the GOV.UK Notify platform), addressed – in the case of invoice no. PS907646 – to D Moff instead of D Moss, such are the perils of using the telephone.

The revolution clearly faces a reaction.

Still, at least you know that all new public service websites are on GOV.UK, the Government Digital Service's award-winning and revolutionary new face of the UK government on-line.

Except that they're not. Companies House's company information website is on https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk, and not https://www.gov.uk/companieshouse. And the feedback you might be tempted to provide on their trial beta service is on https://www.research.net, the US SurveyMonkey company, and not https://www.gov.uk/research.

Five years GDS have been around. They still haven't got all the old public service websites onto GOV.UK, not even the most popular ones, and they still can't get all the new ones onto this supposed single solitary exclusive publishing platform.


Updated St Patrick's Day 2017

"... all new public service websites are on GOV.UK, the Government Digital Service's award-winning and revolutionary new face of the UK government on-line", as we were saying the other day, "Except that they're not".

Companies House's website isn't on GOV.UK and neither is the Civil Service Jobs website. It's on http://www.civilservicejobs.service.gov.uk and not http://www.gov.uk/civilservicejobs.

The claim that all government websites are on the single domain GOV.UK looks tattier and tattier by the day.


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