Will 2013 be the year when "putting people first" gets priority over "digital by default"?

Four years ago I described how HMG prices the time of those working in the private and voluntary sectors at £zero when making the “business case” for forcing them go on-line services for tasks where putting a form and a cheque in the post took less time and effort. 

Over the Christmas break I learned that the situation may be getting worse – for reasons which do no credit to the technophiliacs responsible. Earlier this year I welcomed the announcement that systems would not be imposed on the public after 2014 without being tried out on by ministers. That deadline needs to be brought forward in view of the harm being done by mandating the use of on-line public sector systems which are not only “as user friendly as a cornered rat”  but may also increase the overall cost of delivery.   

My first example concerns the transfer of cost from government departments to business by mandating on-line payment. A small firm which does notuse on-line banking (because of a series of frauds which paralysedthe business for nearly a month, even though the amounts removed from the bankaccounts were eventually refunded) can no longer senda cheque in the post to pay their VAT. Instead they delay payment until they have reason to travelto the nearest City Centre because the local bank where they couldhave paid by bank giro has closed.

Were the savings to HMRC from terminating direct paymentby cheque in the post really worth the extra costs to small firms? Did they even cover the cost of delayed payments? Are they less, or more, vulnerable to fraud? Did anyone actually do sums – before or after? There are other examples from BIS to DEFRA (and their respective agencies) of mandating on-line data returns from farms and businesses without ensuring the service really is easier to use than the postal equivalent. At least the HMRC on-line VAT return itself does not take much longer on-line while the year end on-line PAYE routine is now quicker and easier (at both ends) than the previous paper routine. 

At issue is the decision to demand electronic payment, taken at a time when the banks were trying to kill off cheques. Being private sector (and subject to market forces) the banks had to back track. On-line payment can indeed be popular. Many of those who will not use on-line banking are willing to pay £2.50 extra in order to use a credit card renew their driving license on-line rather than queue at the Post Office. Others, however, are not – including those who are not credit-worthy and may be least well-off.

The common use of government issued credentials (including the “false obtaining of genuine”) in support of identity fraud means that those reluctant to transact on-line with HMG are not necessarily being irrational.  We also seriously under-estimate theproportion of businesses and individuals unwilling or unable to usemainstream on-line banking: from the cost of services to handle multiplesignatories for authorisation, through meeting the needs of those with disabilities, to security concerns.

We need to address their needs and make it genuinely easier and more secure to go on-line, rather than condemn those unwilling or unable to do so as ignorant Luddites. We also need to be ready for when the on-line service goes down (fire, flood, cable theft or single digititis).  

My second example concerns a small “trust”with a tax bill averaging under £5 p.a. , for which the annual returns (only fourboxes needed filling) used to take the Treasurer under 30 minutes (mainly tofind the notes on how it was done last year!). A new IT literate Treasurer madethe mistake of deciding to file on-line without being aware what was entailed. They assumed it would be akin to filing a personal return on-line. The paperwork requiring a return by a given date for those not filing on-line did not make clear that they would need to purchase HMRC approved software and the software did not make clear that it assumed that a Gateway Account had already been created. In consequence the first return has so far taken over ten man hours, plus new software and multiple phonecalls spread over three months – and the saga is not yet over.

It began whenthe Treasurer discovered that, unlike on-line self assessment, they had topurchase software from an HMRC approved supplier. After six calls to those onthe list (some no longer in business) the cheapest was £35.99. The test transmissionfailed. After a lengthy phone call to HMRC it transpired this was because theydid not have an authentication code for the Government Gateway (neither the guidance material nor the sfotware had made the requirement clear).  This wouldtake 7 days by post and had to be used within 28 days. Theauthentication code arrived at the same time as BT “upgraded” thebroadband in the area, which cut off the broadband connection for 3 weeks. The next submission also failed. After a three quarter hour telephonecall with HMRC it transpired that the password being used did not match that givenback in October. The new password arrived the day the authentication codeexpired. It being a rural area the post did not arrive until the afternoonand it was the following day before Treasurer was available to look at it. By then the login code had indeed expiredand a new one would be needed, this would take …

IT experts and enthusiasts reading this latter case study may talkof the need to “educate” such users: but the new Treasurer’s voluntary work was to escape from a day job which often involves using on-line services in support of complex administrative and consultancytasks. They were also used to filing family tax returns on-line and making travel bookings. The problem was compounded by the attempt to upgrade Internet access from the flint cottage housing the computer. I plan to blog separately on what I learned over Christmas on the current state of broadband support (“Will 2013 be the year when it becomes easier to service than to change supplier?”). I plan to also blog on the current situation with regard to guidance for current and potential Charity trustees – suffice it to say, this now appears more serious than that which I highlighted a couple of years ago .

Apparently the response of the Charity Commission to funding cuts from the Home Office has been to route enquiries to advisors whosefunding had already been removed by Home Office, DCLG, DEFRA and others. The result could wipe-out much of what is left of the voluntary sector at a time when policy is to encourage it. Meanwhile Go On UK is attempting to get charities to go on line withoutchecking the guidance and support available to those who attempt to do so.

Back in the late 1960s when I was a graduate trainee(before the days of computer science courses) we were taught to begin with anorganisation and methods exercise to look at the people processes the systemwas to serve. When I did the feasibility study for my first on-line transactionprocessing system, in the early 1970s, we measured the time it would take for the users from going online instead of completing forms to pass to the datapreparation room. In the early 1980s, when I ran the NCC Microsystems Centre, I was briefly famous for describing a pieceof over-hyped software as being “as user friendly as a corned rat“.

Four years ago I chaired a session at an EU Conference on the ethics of on-line services (part of the ETICA programme) and blogged on the consensus. The time has come for robust action (including by the British Computer Society) against those who bring the “profession” into disrepute by seeking to force those dealing with government on-line without checking that the services they are expected to use really are fit for purpose by the target audiences as opposedto imposing additional time and cost burdens on the end-users and intermediaries and giving net benefitonly to consultants and outsource providers.

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