RPA opens up routines for farmers with no digital or credit footprints to bypass Verify

I have been very business over the last week but hope to make time over the week-end to blog my responses to the Autumn statement, particularly a welcome for:

  • the exemption of apprentices aged under 25 from national insurance (should help transform the UK IT skills scene by providing a less unequal playing field with our overseas competitors),
  • the reform of business rates (to also be exploited for communications infrastructure) and
  • the less unequal tax playing field for UK-based and overseas on-line players (to make the latter compete on quality of service instead of tax avoidance).
  • the extension of the BDUK voucher scheme

I plan to also respond to the recent Labour party Digital Government submission, beginning with those recommendations with which, as a tribal Tory, I strongly agree – such as the need to:

  • give priority for public service delivery to those in most need and
  • to take a good look at which is ethical with regard to digital by default and big, open, data, particularly that which should belong to you and me. 

and to say that BDUK has actually done a rather good job, given the situation that ministers  inherited in 2010. Read my comments on the Computer Weekly interview with Ed Vaizey on Broadband Progress before you faint.

However, more immediately, I ecommend that all digital by default enthusiasts watch the recent evidence session of the EFRA Select Committee enquiry on the ability of farmers to use the new on-line claims services by the spring 2015 deadline.

The first witness was Sean Williams who effectively said that everything was going according to plan and that the plans had agreed with Local Authorities did not include priority for those with the worst current connections, let alone helping them meet Rural Payments Agency timescales. Those affected should therefore use satellite.  We also learned that most of the 90 submissions to the Committee called for “Digital Community Hubs”. I had not realised just how strong the support was already for these when I referred to the trend towards the local digital interconnection hubs in my submission to the Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy consultation. Sean Williams said that BT would connect anyone who made a good business case. Watch this space because the key to their sustainable and future-proof success is “any-to-any” connectivity.

When Henry Robinson and Charles Trotman of Country Land and Business gave evidence we learned that 12,000 farmers (11%) have no digital footprint at all and four exchanges are still on dial-up, with no upgrade plans in sight. They reiterated the CLAB call for a Universal Service obligation and reminded us that, thanks to contention and other issues, “up to 2 mbs” is nothing like the same as the reliable delivery of at least 2 mbs.

As the session politely progressed, with all participants maintaining straight faces, the dry comedy continued with some splendidly polite “understatements”: 

– from “as the broadband meanders” (for those next to a cabinet who are being served from one 4 kilometres away)

– to “and what have you learned [from the customer feedback via three pilot assisted digital centres] other than swearwords”. 

Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, described how the Rural Payment Agency had re-learned both customer services and agile methodology. It now has a three week software upgrade cycle in response to feedback and the discovery of the need to structure services and the “customer journey” round the way that farmers, as opposed to the expert consultants think they need. He wryly contrasted that with nearly a decade of “delayed big bang“, waiting years to discover what should have been discovered with pilot systems before confirming the specification for roll out. 

The new services have been tested to work at 500 kbs but even that may not be reliably delivered over circuits supposedly running at “up to 2 mbs” because of contention. They are therefore being restructured to save automatically whenever the service goes down. Meanwhile the approach behind the first Government Verify service to be accredited did not work with those who inherited their farms and have never had to borrow or request credit. The RPA has therefore had to reinstate a routine to bypass Verify and allow farmers to register direct.[I seem to recollect that this tallies with a court case which found that citizens have a legal right to be able to deal direct with government departments and not have to do so via intermediaries].
Finally Jonathan Owen, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils described, among a series of other splendid points, how the provision of 100 mbps services had led to 20% improvements in “business efficiency”, e.g. hotel bookings and orders for rural businesses.

I do look forward to the report of the EFRA Select Committee.