Digital technology is transforming governments all over the world, as they employ new processes and practices to make them better at what they already do and find new ways to support and serve the public. The UK has been regarded as a world leader and its GOV.UK website widely copied. But more ambitious aspects of the Government’s agenda – such as Verify, which enables citizens to prove their identity online – are proving less successful.
One of the earliest initiatives of the Government Digital Service (GDS), founded in 2011, was to consolidate government’s online presence into GOV.UK, a single portal for information and services. Everything from official statistics to speeches is now published digitally by default.
Digital services on GOV.UK have expanded from 25 ‘exemplar’ projects in the early days of GDS to nearly 800 now, allowing UK citizens to perform a wide range of tasks, from renewing their passport or driving licence to subscribing to flood alerts.
But some of the more ambitious initiatives aimed at transforming government have stalled. GDS espoused the idea of ‘government as a platform’, developing common components – which would allow citizens to provide proof of their identity, make payments and be notified by government bodies – that could be used across a number of services. In particular, Verify has run into problems, with uptake being less than expected and the Government cutting any further funding.
Other aspects of the Government Transformation Strategy, published in 2017, also remain unfulfilled. And questions abound about the future of GDS, with Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee the latest to raise concerns.
The Government has successfully consolidated its digital presence into GOV.UK
The digital transformation of government in the UK began with a desire to “bring government closer to the individual” and put services, including providing information to the public, online. A rush by individual government departments, agencies, campaigns and other teams to create their own websites during the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s ultimately led to more than 1,800 separate sites – a well- intentioned mess.
Shortly after taking office in May 2010, the Coalition Government invited the internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox to review Directgov, then the main online portal for UK government information and services. She recommended making Directgov the single portal, under the control of a chief executive and a central team in the Cabinet Office. This ultimately led to the creation of the Government Digital Service and GOV.UK. The latter was launched in 2012 and rapidly replaced its main predecessors, Business Link and Directgov. Since then the Government’s online presence has been mostly consolidated into a single domain, reducing the number of open government websites (those that can be accessed by people outside government) from around 1,800 to 295 in November 2018. Lots of government organisations have their own web presence and content within GOV.UK, but with a consistent design and technical underpinning.
Use of GOV.UK has grown steadily, from around four million weekly unique users at the start of 2013, to almost 14 million at the beginning of 2018. There is a seasonal pattern, which peaks in the spring at the end of the financial year; traffic is at its lowest in the weeks around Christmas. The growth in the number of GOV.UK users reflects the overall growth of internet users in the UK.
There were several goals driving this process of consolidation beyond merely rationalising a mess of different websites. GOV.UK was created to focus on the needs of users. It is a standard platform that can evolve to meet the need for information and services. It has supported the overarching ambition that the UK Government should be “digital by default”, winning design awards and being replicated by other governments. Despite these successes, some specialist users have criticised the site, particularly after old documents or data disappeared from it.
Of the 295 open government websites that remain, 236 are “exempt from transition”.[9,10] These are sites for organisations, including museums and galleries, with various valid reasons for wanting a distinct online identity, despite having major working, organisational or funding links with government.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has the greatest number of open government websites. In part this reflects the number of its agencies that work independently of government, particularly supporting the judiciary. These include the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office. MoJ exemptions also reflect the many agencies that advocate for or work for individuals, such as the Criminal Cases Review Commission or the Legal Ombudsman. Many of Defra’s websites are exempt because they are charities, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the Dartmoor National Park Authority.
People increasingly access the information and services on GOV.UK from mobile devices
The steady growth in use of GOV.UK has also been marked by a shift in the way that people access its information and services. At GOV.UK’s launch, this was mostly using computers, but over time the platform has been increasingly accessed via mobile devices. In June 2013 computers accounted for almost 73% of traffic, and mobiles for less than 18%. By November 2018 the shares of traffic coming from computers and mobiles had changed to 48% and 43% respectively.
Every year around Christmas, pageviews from computers fall, along with an overall drop in traffic, probably because people are not at work. This creates a corresponding spike in traffic from mobile devices and tablets. Tablets have never exceeded 17% of traffic and their use is declining. While mobiles have yet to account for more than 50% of all traffic, they have come close, reaching 49% in December 2017. They have generated more traffic than computers at three points over the past few years.
This growing use of mobiles partly reflects changing patterns in how people access the internet. But it also indicates the changing nature of GOV.UK. As the platform has progressed from simply providing static information to offering services, it has created new demand. Widening access to individuals who may own a smartphone but do not have regular access to a computer fits with GDS’s commitment to make it “much easier to do important things”.
Departments with the highest overall traffic volumes also tend to have the highest share of traffic from mobile devices. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is the second-busiest government website. Its most-visited section is the Universal Credit sign-in page, which is also the second most-visited page on GOV.UK, with more than 1.3 million weekly visits (in a sample week, the week commencing 29 October 2018). DWP is the only website where more than 50% of pageviews come from mobiles. This may reflect a successful widening of access to users who do not have a computer; it may also show that people prefer or need to access the information and services offered by DWP while out and about.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) is the big exception to the trend for busier sites to have a greater share of traffic from mobiles. Here the large majority of traffic comes from desktops.
The Government now provides almost 800 digital services
Since 2015 hundreds of analogue government services have been made available online. In some cases the digital version of the service has fully replaced the older analogue version. For example, applications for tax refunds from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and information on land and property from the Land Registry have had 100% digital take-up. In most cases there is still an ongoing transition where offline and online versions operate in parallel. For instance, despite it being one of the services most used by the public, in Q3 2018 only 51% of the DVLA’s driving licence renewal transactions were done digitally.
The services on offer span the breadth of government work, ranging from systems that automatically send out alerts in the case of a flood or an outbreak of disease, to sites that allow individuals to register to vote, or apply for a new passport or driving licence. There are many niche and specialised services on offer too, such as applications for a licence to operate a space object, or to trade controlled forms of oil.
This process of digitisation began in 2012 with a plan to take 25 major government services, the so-called exemplars, and make them digital. By late 2015, 20 of the 25 proposed exemplar services had been launched. These included voter registration, patent renewal and access to personal tax accounts. Not all the exemplars were rolled out successfully – the National Audit Office was highly critical of rural payments, for example – but the exemplar programme showed that many different types of government service could be delivered digitally. Since 2015 the total number of services has soared to almost 800.
Four departments and their public bodies account for more than half of all digital services: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, 189), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra, 120), Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC, 91) and Department for Transport (DfT, 82). However, these combined handle barely a quarter of all transactions. HMRC, despite administering only 50 digital services, handles 68% of the reported transactions for all government digital services.
This is driven in particular by the more than 1.5 billion annual stamp duty reserve tax transactions – a tax on certain types of trade. The DVLA’s service that allows people to check whether a vehicle is taxed is the second most popular. The only departments with no digital services are the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) and the Northern Ireland Office, neither of which has any significant operational functions.
Government digital services now handle well over three billion reported transactions annually. The 10 busiest account for almost 92% of all transactions, and seven of these belong to HMRC.
Many digital services are administered by public bodies sponsored by departments, rather than departments themselves. This reflects how government is structured, with public bodies often handling most of the operational delivery work on behalf of departments. There are exceptions: a majority of the digital services offered by DWP and HMRC are run by the departments themselves.
Two thirds of digital services are targeted at businesses, with the remaining third serving individuals. A very small number are designed for both, such as the data search and request services offered by Companies House. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) offers two digital services for charities, allowing places of worship and monuments receiving certain government grants to reclaim VAT. The most common types of digital service deal with requests for either a licence or consent, or provide information.
While digital services are supposed to deliver cost savings, they are not free to run. Public funds support the running costs of 62% of them (60% of those aimed at businesses, and 66% of those aimed at individuals), with the remainder supported by fees and charges on the user. Funding varies between departments: all of HMRC’s digital services are taxpayer-funded, while 93% of DfT’s are funded by fees and charges.
Government as a Platform is supposed to make digital transformation easier
GOV.UK is just one element of what GDS calls Government as a Platform (GaaP). This is “a suite of technology products that solve common problems which government service teams have to tackle repeatedly when designing and building services for citizens”. For example, completely different services built by very different departments may still have some common requirements – such as the need to verify somebody’s identity, allow people to pay government or allow them to be contacted about the service they’re using.
Indeed, these are the tasks covered by three of the current GaaP components:
- Verify creates a secure digital identity standard for users, which makes it quicker, easier and safer to prove their identity when accessing government services online.
- Pay is a single standard payment-handling system, which makes financial transactions easier and more secure.
- Notify provides a standard way for digital services to send messages to users, either by email, SMS or letter.
In addition, there are registers – authoritative datasets that departments can build services around – and Platform as a Service (PaaS), which provides web hosting. GDS takes a similar approach to standardisation in the digital procurement platforms it is responsible for – G-Cloud and the Digital Marketplace.
Notify was launched in 2016 (the first emails were sent in May, and the first SMS messages in June). The system is currently set up to deliver up to 500 million messages per year, and can handle peak hourly traffic of more than one million. There was steady growth of these channels and the third – letters – throughout 2017. The use of this service to send emails grew dramatically in 2018, with the median number of daily emails rising to 618,000, compared to 1,482 letters and 52,500 SMS messages. While the volume of letters is small relative to the other modes of communication, the use of letters has been growing.
In total there are 459 different services using Notify, and since inception it has sent a total of 218 million notifications: 188 million emails, 29.9 million SMS messages and 622,000 letters. The number of services has been growing steadily.
The Cabinet Office was an early adopter of GOV.UK Notify. It accounted for five of the first 10 digital services to make use of it. These included GOV.UK Pay, the Digital Marketplace and PaaS for government. This growth has continued and now the Cabinet Office is second only to MoJ in the number of digital services it runs that make use of Notify (54 and 59 respectively).
Notify has also been taken up outside of central government, with 140 services provided by 70 local authorities making use of it. Pembrokeshire County Council is the most enthusiastic adopter: 23 of its services incorporate Notify. The uses it is put to by local authorities range from various types of housing service to council tax and notifications in case of extreme hot or cold weather.
GOV.UK Pay has also continued to grow steadily since it was launched in October2015. The services incorporating it range from money transfers to prisoners, to payment handling for the Government Art Collection. There are currently 51 services that use GOV.UK Pay. The highest number are run by the Foreign Office, which offers 21 different services enabling people to buy emergency travel documents in countries around the world. As with Notify, local authorities have incorporated Pay into some of their services, although to a far lesser extent. Currently there are six using it, including Kent County Council’s Trading Standards licensing service.
The number and total value of transactions Pay handles has risen year on year. In total, 2.16 million payments worth £96.9m have been made using Pay. During 2018, the average daily value of transactions varied between £28.77 (on Christmas Day) and £55.66 with a median of £45.28.
GDS is also supporting the transformation of the use and management of data within government. One way it is doing this is through the development of registers, or “authoritative lists of information”.[34,35] The aim is to create canonical references that can be used by digital services across government, the principle being that it is easier to build a better service when you can trust the accuracy of the data you are using. The eclectic mix of data ranges from lists of geographical designations (such as countries, local authorities and job centre districts), to recognised qualifications, to the official list of food allergens recognised by the Food Standards Agency.
The first four registers were launched in February 2016 and there are now 47, provided by 14 government organisations. The original proposal in the Government Transformation Strategy, published in February 2017, was for 40 registers, although only nine of those seem to have been implemented so far.
Existing registers have been used nearly 920,000 times since 2016. The most popular over the past year have been the lists of all websites contained within the GOV.UK domain  and the official list of countries recognised by the UK; combined, these account for nearly 57% of all API requests to registers.
GDS stated in the Government Transformation Strategy that registers would “[underpin] citizen trust in government data with robust, provable integrity and authority, and [help] services provide consistent user journeys using core data”. The Institute for Government has argued that getting such basic data infrastructure right is critical if government is to realise the benefits of more advanced technology. But the National Audit Office has criticised its implementation, noting that “there is little strategic overview of the data needs of departments and no common view of how best to assess privacy concerns, consent and security”. Other Transformation Strategy commitments, such as the appointment of a chief data officer for government, remain unfulfilled.
GOV.UK Verify is struggling and growth is far lower than expected
The Government describes Verify as “a secure way to prove who you are online”, making it easier for members of the public to identify themselves when dealing with government organisations. It will replace existing systems such as Government Gateway, which was launched in 2001 as a means of identity verification for individuals and businesses, and is due to close permanently in March 2019.[47,48] Government Gateway has been owned by HMRC, and since 2001 has grown to support 123 live digital services, with 50 million registered users and more than 406 million authentications per year. However, the Cabinet Office requires all other departments to use GOV.UK Verify, in an effort to create a single means of personal identification.
GOV.UK Verify was launched in beta – that is, a working, publicly accessible version still subject to testing and improvement – in October 2014 and went live in May 2016. Five private sector companies, including Barclays and Experian, handle applications, confirming the identity of an individual when they register.
Verify has encountered several problems. First, there are only 18 government services that make use of it and the only way to sign up at present is to be a user of one of those services. While they include many of the busiest web pages, such as DWP’s ‘Get your State Pension’, HMRC’s ‘Check your income tax’ and Defra’s ‘Rural payments’, registering for Verify is not a requirement when using them. Thus, there is no strong incentive for people to register, and for individuals who do not use any of these services, there is no immediate means.
The original target was for 25 million registered users by 2025; as of 30 November 2018, Verify has only 3.16 million. To reach the target, it would have needed to add around 46,800 new users a week from the point of launch in October 2014. To date, there have only been five weeks when the number of registrations has exceeded this. Currently the service needs to add more than 67,000 users weekly to hit the target. While it has been adding new users at a greater rate recently, at its present overall rate of growth it will not reach 25 million registered users until June 2033.
The process of registering users has been expensive and has consumed a large portion of the entire GDS budget. Between 2015 and 2017, GDS received a £54m boost in funding, from £96.2m to £150.3m; 80% of this increase was ring-fenced for Verify, GaaP and Common Technology Services. A subsequent £53m decrease in funding for GDS was forecast for 2017–19; £36m of this was specifically related to the end of government support for the GOV.UK Verify programme. In October 2018 the Government confirmed that it would no longer subsidise Verify, and that the service would transition fully to a “private sector-led model”.[55,56] The National Audit Office has reported that “it is assumed that GOV.UK Verify will become self-funding from [2018– 19]”, based on the fees users pay to register.
The Government Digital Service budget is expected to fall
GDS is going to have to make do with fewer resources to continue delivering on its transformation work. Even allowing for the end of the funding boost that was given to support the rollout of GOV.UK Verify, the budget is now lower in real terms than at any point since 2013–14.
From 2018/19 to 2019/20, over half of its budget will be dedicated to the development of common technology and services, such as Notify and Pay, as part of GaaP. An increasing share of its budget is dedicated to running and maintaining existing services.
As well as a smaller budget, GDS is also projected to have fewer staff. Staff numbers peaked in 2016/17, and are set to continue to fall in line with the 2015 Spending Review.
As well as a reduced budget and staff, slower progress than expected in some areas and other developments – such as the transfer of data policy and digital identity policy responsibility to DCMS – have prompted the Science and Technology Select Committee to inquire into the future of digital government in the UK. The next year may see the role of the Government Digital Service evolve further, as GDS formulates a new innovation strategy focused on making the most of future technology, the Digital, Data and Technology function matures, and Brexit requires changes to existing digital services and the creation of new ones.