I did something wrong - and Government IT did not help me

A while back I was caught speeding.  I have no defence: I was going too fast, and the policeman who stopped me was very nice about it and we parted on good enough terms, apart from me having 3 points on my licence and a need to become £100 lighter.

This soon became the problem.  Accepting my guilt, I decided to pay up smartly.  On the fixed penalty notice (FPN), it says that you can pay via a government web site – penaltynotice.direct.gov.uk.

Going to this, the first thing that hit me was a security certificate issue, with strong advice from my browsers not to proceed.  I therefore decided that maybe it would be a good idea to let the government know that their certificate had expired and that it may be a good idea to renew it (or that they should not have let it lapse in the first place).

A quick search on Twitter showed that there is an office @DirectGov handle.  However, it comes up with a message saying that this has been replaced with @govuk.  OK – no problem – a quick Tweet to @govuk on the subject should solve it.  However, @govuk couldn’t understand what I was on about – I finally managed to get them to understand, at which point they decided that it was something outside of their capabilities and handed me off to @MOJDigital (MOJ being the Ministry of Justice).  We moved over to direct messaging, and I thought that we would get everything sorted pretty fast.

@MOJDigital then tried to persuade me to just use the site along with the security warning, which I wasn’t too keen on doing.  When pressed, @MOJDigital decided that I should be passed over to the Home Office.  The Home Office doesn’t have a Twitter account, so I had to email them instead. 

In the meantime, I decided to pay on the website anyway.  The first thing that is required is the FPN Notice Number.  On the top of the FPN are a set of numbers, one of which is marked “Ticket Number”.  The web site turns this down – but there is nothing to help you figure out what the Notice Number is (such as a small question mark with a pop up to say this is what the number should look like).  I tried various variations on a theme, but was turned down by the site every time.  I searched on Google, to no avail.  I looked on various government web sites – nothing.

I wrote to the Home Office again (copying in Theresa May as Home Secretary and Francis Maude as the Cabinet Secretary responsible for Government IT).  And waited – no acknowledgement of receipt, nothing.  A few days later, a response – “We are sorry, but the matters you have raised are responsibility of Communities and Local Government.  We have therefore transferred your e-mail to CLG, who will arrange for a reply to be sent to you.”

No email address as to who it had been forwarded to; no chance for me to chase up on this; no acknowledgement from CLG that they had received anything.

A few days later, lo and behold, another email.  “The matters you have raised are the responsibility of Department for Transport.  We have therefore transferred your e-mail to DFT, who will arrange for a reply to be sent to you.”

And I waited.  There is a 28 day limit on payment of a fine, and I doubt very much that trying to claim that for 26 of those days, you have been trying to pay, but the system (or what I was rapidly coming to see as “The System”) wouldn’t let me.

I finally decided to abandon the idea of using the web site and use one of the other methods instead.  Calling an automated phone based system seemed like the next best idea.  Except that it wouldn’t pick up all the dual-tone multi frequency (DTMF) button pushes from my phone.

But – a moment of understanding – the automated voice was requesting a 16 digit FPN Notice Number.  Looking at the FPN, I could then figure out what aggregate fields were required to go back to the (now re-certificated) web site and pay.  The actual number is made up from the FPN Type, the Ticket Number and the Fine Code – 16 characters (some printed, some typed and some handwritten) over three separate fields spread over a piece of paper around 15cm wide.

So, this is the joined up government.  It has taken nearly 4 weeks for me not to get an answer to what should be a simple request – just what is the FPN Notice Number?  7 different government entities have been involved in this one simple request – and not one of them has managed to give a suitable response.  I have had no response from the DFT or from Theresa May or Francis Maude.

For years, there has been a cry from outside and within the public sector for joined up government and technical systems that enable cross-functional services so that the citizen can go to one place for their needs.

It appears that we are as far away, if not further, from this Nirvana as we have ever been.  In times where austerity measures are being talked about by politicians of all colours, this lack of joined up capability and paucity of technical capabilities seems such a waste.

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