The latest online transactional service from government has gone live as part of the digital by default initiative to put more public services online.
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Electoral registration is the third public service to go live online after lasting power of attorney and student finance. These public services are three of the 25 most used government services that Government Digital Service (GDS) is moving online as part of a two-year project.
The 25 services – ranging from visa applications to benefits claims to booking prison visits – were identified as exemplars that would be the first to be redeveloped under the digital by default plan.
Registering to vote is the latest service which hopes to make the process simpler for citizens and save the government money. People will be able to register to vote online and on any device in three minutes by providing their name, address, date of birth and National Insurance number.
The individual electoral registration (IER) website now replaces the archaic paper-based process dating back to the 19th century where one person registers the entire household. According to minister of state for cities and constitution Greg Clark, placing the responsibility with the individual increases the security of the registration process.
IER aims to prevent fraud by allowing government to verify individuals who complete the online process and prove that they are who they say they are using their National Insurance number.
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Speaking to Computer Weekly after the service went live on 10 June, Clark said he believed the new service was bringing the electoral registration into the 21st century.
“We want to encourage people to register to vote and we’re conscious as time goes by that more people are becoming impatient of paper-based systems,” he said.
According to the Metropolitan Police, a large proportion of financial fraud is linked to a fraudulent entry on the electronic register. “It’s important that people have confidence in the system and the knowledge that everyone has their individual identity checked,” Clark added.
Additionally, around 80% of citizens will be automatically added to the register without needing to fill in a form online or via paper channels.
“Most people will not need to register online. That’s a big improvement of the automaticity of it,” said Clark. "You’re used to the form coming through the door to fill in, but if you’re automatically registered you won’t need to do that, you’ll just receive a letter saying you’re already registered.”
Clark explained that the system will recognise if a person is on the council’s database and will automatically verify this against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) database to confirm identity, meaning that people who pay national insurance and council tax will automatically be registered.
But Clark also noted that it isn’t the intention to switch off the paper-based channel and go solely online.
“It’s such a fundamental right that people should be able to register to vote, it needs to be universal. Not everyone has access to online platforms,” he said.
“But the more online is taken up, the greater the advantages,” he added. “The more people who are confirmed automatically or online, the more time councils have to go door-to-door to chase up people who haven’t registered rather than spending all their time transcribing paper forms into online forms.”
New approach for local authorities
The system could also potentially free up time and reduce paper waste by local authorities who post out letters and subsequent reminder letters about registering to vote.
Local authorities could also use the website when going door-to-door at their last attempt to contact people who have not registered to vote. These council workers could take with them tablets and get citizens registered on their doorsteps within minutes.
This has the added benefit of securing citizens' personal details. “This means not lugging around a sack full of paper forms with people’s personal details on. The details go straight off and are not cached locally on the device,” said Piers Harris, digital director of the Electoral Registration Transformation Programme.
But registering to vote online doesn’t signify the first step towards voting online. Clark was very clear in saying that this new online service is a separate active from the act of voting.
“The current government has no plans to do this, and we’ve been focused on the registration side of it,” he said. “But John Bercow speaker of the House of Commons, wants to initiate a conversation around this.”
Building the service and GDS
The project began in autumn 2012 and GDS built an alpha of the website in four weeks. It has since undergone rigorous user testing over the past 12-18 months, before going live on 10 June.
As well as the website, GDS also built the digital service communications hub, while DWP built the matching algorithms to connect the data sets.
Additionally, there are 380 local authorities across the country that run standalone software from one of four electoral management software (EMS) suppliers – Halarose, Express, Idox and Democracy Counts – which also had to rebuild their systems to be able to make remote calls over the digital service to transmit data.
Harris said multiple suppliers, as well as in-house development, made the project “interesting and challenging” to manage.
“In developing a digital service it works completely in parallel,” he said. “You have an agile development with ever-changing APIs [application programming interfaces] and in parallel you have four commercial companies developing their software and having to accommodate change as it happens through an iterative process through the API.”
Harris said it was a collaborative process between the EMS suppliers and GDS: “It was a delicate tightrope to walk along, in terms of allowing GDS to change freely, but also doing it in a controlled manner to make sure it wasn’t causing excessive work for the EMS development.”