The Pesticides Safety Directorate has become the first government department to use digital signature software to secure its transactions with the public.
The PSD is the government agency responsible for ensuring that agricultural pesticides in the UK are used with the minimum of risk to users, consumers and the environment. Its principal functions are to evaluate and process applications for the approval of pesticide products and to issue licences for new pesticides to be produced and sold in the UK.
This generates vast amounts of paperwork as the PSD issues more than 1,500 approvals each year. In the past, the process involved going through many channels, faxing and couriering documents all over the country to be signed by various government agencies.
Since last November the PSD has been using Computer Associates software with electronic signatures to complete approval documents. This allows digital signatures to be communicated via the web.
While other government departments have used digital signatures to securely transfer documents between one another, Andrew Parks, IT project manager at the PSD, said this is the first time a government department has used the technology to interact with customers online.
"The technology is browser-independent and therefore is of no cost to industry or the public," said Parks. "It also has a secure application for the internal agencies within the government secure intranet but also enables the public to view documents on the website."
Security measures are very important as the documents being signed off detail everything about the pesticide. In the past they were required to have a physical signature to verify that permission to make or use a pesticide had been granted.
The £100,000 cost of implementing the software was paid for from the Invest to Save budget, an initiative developed by the Treasury to encourage public and private involvement in innovative ventures.
Parks said the software has brought immediate improvements. Previously, the turnaround time on approvals to make changes to documents would have been three or four days; the process now involves simply e-mailing the document to the various government agencies across the government secure intranet and having the revised document e-mailed back, which can all be completed in one afternoon.
Being e-enabled also means that an admin-intensive monthly pesticide report is no longer needed.
The PSD has now digitally signed off almost 1,000 approvals. "It has saved the PSD 600 hours of staff time since January and they are saving £60,000 a year on staff costs," said Parks. "However, the real savings will not really kick in until next year."
The project has also raised the profile of the department in Whitehall, with other government bodies showing interest in the technology. Both the Cabinet Information Office and Scottish Land Registry are looking into similar solutions.