Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20-39)



Mr Jenkins

  20. Good afternoon. I always like to ask nice easy questions. When you come before the Committee you have got a chance, and it is only one chance you get, of putting before us what you see to be the accurate position with regard to your responsibilities today. I, for one, get a little bit concerned when we have had people in front of the Committee only to find that a week or so later we read in the press about an issue that should have been brought up at the Committee stage. If I can ask you and give you the chance today, because I do not think in global terms you are doing that badly, can you tell me what are the main concerns or problems you have got at the moment with this system? Where do you feel we should be exercising our activity as a department, as a government, that are causing particular problems? What do you see as the main problems?
  (Mavis McDonald) I suspect we will all have a slightly different take on that but I actually think in this area the issues that we were touching on at the last session are really important. We are all on quite a fast learning curve in thinking about what e-services might be and what they can do. We started in the Cabinet Office, and I think it is true to say that local government started, with a set of targets and a set of objectives which were very much about getting information up and running. I.e. thinking about e-service delivery as being about doing what you already do but doing it through some electronic medium. We are all learning quite quickly that it is very much more both difficult than that but there are a lot more opportunities than that as we develop our understanding. Our thinking is about both e-service delivery and the capacity for different kinds of transactions and the scope, therefore, for pulling services together very differently and interacting differently with the customers, whether it is as local authority residents or as a taxpayer, which mean you think very differently about how you are putting the services together. I think there are some very good government examples of where we are moving and there are some equally good local government examples of where individual local authorities have been relatively radical but we are all working across a spectrum. I think it is keeping up with what is going on, understanding what the art of the possible is and how fast we need to move and not having everybody reinvent the wheel all the time either in local government or in central government. That is very much a personal view in response to your question.

  21. You have got no problem?
  (Mr Pinder) I am not sure that is what Mavis McDonald was saying, it is certainly not what I would say. She is not saying that at all. For me I see three big issues looking across government getting government on-line. First of all there is the issue we have touched up which is that of authentication. Certain transactions require us to be absolutely sure that the person at the other end of the transaction is the right person we have to deal with, often for reasons of privacy, often for reasons of financial integrity. Therefore, this whole issue of digital certificates and how we authenticate people is very important and clearly one that we have not successfully tackled but one that we need to tackle and fix over the next year or so. That is issue number one. Issue number two is the question of take-up, and again we have already touched on that with the question of Customs and Excise, where the target of having all government services on-line by 2005 is necessary in order to galvanise people to do some activity but it is not sufficient. What is sufficient is that we get the services on-line that people want in the way that they want them and a good indicator of whether they are attractive services, both on-line and in the way that people want them, is that they are used. So take-up, for me, is a very important indicator of how well we are doing and one that we really need to be focusing on. The third is the issue of those people who do not have direct access to the Internet. Just under half the UK population regularly use the Internet. In the way that we are getting government services on-line there is the opportunity to make them available not just for those people who directly use them but also by the use of intermediaries, for example people like the Citizen's Advice Bureaux or commercial organisations, to help those people who do not have direct access to the Internet or do not choose to access us that way also benefit from those services, particularly in the area of benefits, for example, those sorts of services where the number of people having access to the Internet tends to be lower than across the generality of services. I think we need to work quite hard at looking at how we enable various other delivery channels to make use of the effort we are putting in to getting a service on-line in order to deliver it to people who are not readily accessing the Internet. For me those are the top three headline items that we need to be very conscious of. The Report identifies all of those and I agree with them.
  (Mavis McDonald) Can I just confirm that I was not saying there were no problems, I was implying this is actually quite new territory and we are learning as we go along so we keep hitting new things that arise. I certainly was not saying that we do not have difficulties to address and we will not necessarily find new ones as we move on.
  (Mr Broadbent) Would you like my problems as well?

  22. We know about your problems.
  (Mr Broadbent) How long have you got! If asked your question what are the issues that will appear in the newspapers I think I would identify this. If, as I would wish, and as I say it is still subject to a debate, we push hard beyond simply pushing a service on-line and actually move into engineering a different set of underlying processes, so we actually change the nature of the interaction with the business, which in my view is the key to getting real value of this process, whether it is input costs or whatever, if we do that then what you will first see is probably a series of complaints as our existing services either degrade slightly or certainly are not improved as they have come to be expected to be because the first thing we will do is to take 400 to 500 existing freestanding silo-ised projects which are all supporting 400 to 500 individual customised services and begin to do the knitting underneath. The cost of doing that and of running them to the very high current standards in some cases will be prohibitive so you will start to see some complaints, I think, about service degradation which I think will be non-business critical but I am very sensitive obviously to my customers' wishes.

  23. How are you off for staff at the moment because I think staff is a major concern in this area? Do you struggle to get the appropriate numbers of staff?
  (Mr Pinder) Certainly in my own area we do. We make fairly extensive use of quite expensive contractors and consultants in order to try to bridge some of that gap. Often it is sensible to use consultants because we need the skills for a very short period of time but undoubtedly there is a general shortage in the economy and in government in particular there is a shortage of people with the appropriate skills to deliver these services effectively. We adopt a variety of means, including these days increasing flexibility on salaries where it is appropriate, to try to get the right person in place. There have been a number of examples of that in central government where it has been very necessary to get someone with absolutely the right skills and the only option has been to go out to the market and pay a sensible amount in terms of outside salaries in order to attract exactly the right person at the time we want them. It is an issue.

  24. You said one of the problems is security authentication of these individuals. Have you got a way of overcoming that problem now or is that an ongoing problem that you are seeking to get to grips with?
  (Mr Pinder) The digital certificates, as it were, technically and theoretically are the right way to try to tackle this problem. Before someone gets a digital certificate they go through a process rather like getting a passport and therefore we know exactly who that individual is and we know this piece of technology called the digital certificate identifies them properly. That is the strongest way of doing it. The problem is the current versions of digital certificates that are available in the market are really quite clunky to get hold of, it is a cumbersome and sometimes expensive process to get them. I know that the industry is working quite hard on making that a much slicker process so that it is possible to get a digital certificate more easily and on-line, almost in flight. If you take the situation where you get a digital certificate in order to do a VAT return, if you are doing it for the first time you have to register at the site and you have to go somewhere to obtain a digital certificate, which takes a few days, and come back. Often people who want to do something like file a VAT return immediately want to go through the whole process seamlessly in one go. The industry are working on ways in which that can happen. There are other ways of authenticating people, not always to exactly the same depth of knowledge that a digital certificate gives you but often adequate for government services, for example through the use of PIN numbers issued to people's residential addresses which is good enough sometimes in some circumstances. On other occasions, and we do not use it in government, other organisations outside government use a sort of credit agency approach where they perhaps go to a bank's database to check that the customer is registered at that bank account and so on and they can authenticate the address on-line. That has got disadvantages. The optimum method for us is digital certificates but we might have to go down that route, or routes similar to that, in order to provide a suitable level of authentication for people, certainly for the immediate future. We have recently gone out to the e-champions, that is my counterparts in individual government departments, to ask for their views in a consultation exercise on this.

  25. Thank you. The second point was take-up. We have got an Office of the e-Envoy now to ensure that basic mistakes on take-up and a low level take-up are not repeated. What advice are you giving across the range of departments to ensure that best practice is passed over and take-up is enhanced as each stage is developed?
  (Mr Pinder) First of all we try to propagate good practice in the form of generic web guidelines. As I said in an earlier answer we publish these regularly, a new version has just been published today that is available on our website and on paper, which picks up the best examples from some very good examples within government of the way that websites are built, NHS Direct, the FCO site, a lot of other sites. They are good sites and we try to propagate that through these guidelines and say "this is the way you should do things". We also organise, or help organise, in both those things regular conferences of the people who are involved directly in designing these sites so that they can discuss and learn from each other and can develop some common standards. We also try to bring in people with experience from outside because there are some extremely good websites outside, the BBC site I hear, the Financial Times' site, lots of sites like that. We try to bring those in and help our internal people learn from the best examples in the commercial world.

  26. Is this a systematic approach or do you just add on as and when you think appropriate?
  (Mr Pinder) We have a systematic approach of producing web guidelines and encouraging people to follow those web guidelines. We have a systematic approach of auditing against those guidelines. As I said, over the next 12 months we are planning two sets of audits of 100 sites each to judge how well they are doing. To that extent it is systematic. My office properly does not have authority over an individual government department to make them do things in this particular way but we certainly strongly encourage them to do so.

  27. I want to move swiftly now on to the area of local authorities where we are putting some money in. When we send the money, now we have got this expertise in-house on how to operate sites, what guidance are you sending out along with the money to local authorities to ensure that they instal not just the council tax collection but other models on their system? Have we got a set-up where we can give them what we consider to be savings, savings that could be made within the operation of the local authorities by developing these services?
  (Mr Pinder) I am going to hand over to my colleagues here.
  (Mavis McDonald) I think our starting position in relation to the programme with local authorities was to ask them effectively for their strategic approach in the same way that when we started within central government we asked for their strategic approach. We have started an iterative process with individual local authorities and the resources we give them to develop their own internal potential on services, including websites, is very much tied to our view of what they are capable of doing and what they might be doing drawing on all the guidance that we have built up within the Office of the e-Envoy. I will ask Andrew if he wants to add on to that because he has been dealing with one of the interchanges that we have had in local government.
  (Mr Whetnall) If I had got in on your question on problems earlier it would have been to say that in much local authority service delivery the issue is that there are some authorities who are very leading edge, very creative, extraordinarily good and possibly some of them even well ahead of government departments in the quality of their websites, in the quality of the way they are restructuring their business processes to support their front end, and there are other authorities who are more hesitant, less confident. Therefore, the challenge is somehow to develop ways of transferring the experience from the leading edge to the rest of local government. For example, on your question about savings, we are funding pathfinder projects and the basic idea is by putting in a limited amount of support, usually to groups of authorities who are developing e-procurement systems, smart cards or customer relations' management systems, at the end of the process we will have a local authority that is able to offer its experience or its software. One example on customer relations' management systems is, we think, for an investment of about a million you will have an authority which is developing a good, all purpose system transferable to other authorities possibly at a cost to the other authorities of the order of £50,000 where they might now be paying two or three million to consultants to develop a purpose built project.

  28. If I can just ask one last question. How are you going to stop the divide widening between those authorities in certain areas that are well funded and have got the system up and running and the rural or poorer local authorities? How are you going to stop that if it is not done on a national strategy?
  (Mavis McDonald) There are national strategies which complement what local authorities are doing in terms of rural access and availability. For example, DfEE and the Office of the e-Envoy have got a large programme of roll-out of access points which can be freestanding UK Online access points or can be the CABs or with local authorities through the DCMS Library Service. We are trying to keep an overview picture of providing and promoting that access whilst working alongside local government in relation to their own services and their own points of access too.

  Mr Jenkins: Will the strategy raise the poorer or the weaker local authorities up to the best? That is a comment.

Mr Osborne

  29. Mr Pinder, do you think it is the job of a website to be up-to-date? That is one of the prime requirements for a website, is it not?
  (Mr Pinder) I think it is quite difficult to keep a website up-to-date all the time. On occasions I know my own website, for example, is not kept up-to-date as much as it might be. Within the resources that we have got available we would like to keep them up-to-date. Part of the problem sometimes in these websites, certainly older websites on older technology, is it is quite an expensive process to make each individual change. That is one of the reasons why we have recently updated the technology on the UK Online website so that within a reasonable period of time we can get that more up-to-date. It is good practice, of course, to keep websites reasonably up-to-date but on occasion that does not happen.

  30. You will therefore share my surprise when I came across the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions' website today up and running, it says 12 June. It is all about a department which I thought did not exist.
  (Mr Pinder) That department if it could speak for itself would have to speak for itself. I suggest that one of the reasons for that is that the new website for the new Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has not yet been built and, therefore, in order to provide at least some sort of service we have to live with the fact that the service is listed under the old department. People need some sort of service there, let us not leave a big blank space. We hope that people will understand that this is work in progress and things are being changed.

  31. I do not think it explains that on the website. Needless to say I decided to explore this website in detail. I thought if I gave up being an MP perhaps I could get a job in this non-existent department. I found that I could apply to be on the board of the Strategic Rail Authority. I am not sure what the Department of Transport thinks about that.
  (Mavis McDonald) I seem to recall we had some of this discussion previously.

  32. Not on this website. The department existed last time.
  (Mavis McDonald) If the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions' website is up it will be partly because we have just created the two new websites for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Transport but all we have managed to do is indicate that we are there and we will have to work quite quickly at the speed at which we can technically to separate them. We may need the existing website to cross link back.

  33. There is a Department of Transport website so they have been quicker off the mark than you.
  (Mavis McDonald) To the best of my understanding we did this at the same time so I am not quite sure why you could not find it. I will go back and find out.[1] There is a genuine point because we had this experience in the Cabinet Office with changes we had at the last election. You quite often need access to a prior website until you can transfer all the data over. You do not want to lose a lot of the information there so you may need to link back to a prior website in order to keep that information available to the public, so you need to build cross links in to previous websites to ensure you do that.

  34. To be fair, there was a link to changes to the Department and it says, "Rt Hon Stephen Byers has been appointed to head a newly formed Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions", that was very prominent on the web page. What about the Downing Street website, I think they have a pretty good one. It says "Full list of Her Majesty's Government Today" on the website, but it does not have the new Minister at the Home Office, Mr Michael Wills, can you explain that?
  (Mavis McDonald) I am sorry, I do not know why he is not on there. I am sure they will be up-dating it as soon as possible and I will go back and tell them.

  35. There was a point of order in the Chamber.
  (Mr Pinder) I know that immediately the reshuffle was announced there was a great effort to provide up-to-date information. I think unfortunately that up-to-date information was provided on the Wednesday of the reshuffle week and it was not then specifically up-dated until the Friday of that reshuffle week. I will draw the issue you have raised to their attention.

  36. I know it is a slightly trick question but you would have thought that the Number 10 website—

  Chairman: What is a trick question?

  Mr Osborne: Surfing the web and finding them wrong! You would have thought, would you not, that the Number 10 website would have a full list of Government ministers. That is an absolute, basic requirement of that website, is it not?
  (Mr Pinder) It is certainly regrettable they do not have a full list of Government ministers paid and unpaid on that site.

  37. What about your website, It says, "What's new on ukonline" and you click that and it says, "New hot topics added, the latest hot topic—the Budget. You can watch the Chancellor live on ukonline." Is this next year's Budget you are advertising?
  (Mr Pinder) I wish we had that foresight. I take your point absolutely. It is useful to have some information about the Budget until the Finance Bill finally goes through Parliament.

  38. You would not argue that was the latest hot topic?
  (Mr Pinder) No, I would not argue that is the latest. As I said at the very beginning, the issue here is to make sure one gets one's priorities right. Changing these sites requires quite a bit of effort and therefore I will make sure that point is raised because it causes me great discomfort here. But in the greater scheme of things, it is important I put my resources, which are actually relatively limited, into getting government on-line properly. I do take the point.

  39. You say it is useful to provide information about the Budget, in fact the things you can find out about are—and I am not leaving anything out—"Who made the longest Budget speech in history? Where does the word Budget come from? Can I watch the Chancellor live? Click on the link to find the answers."
  (Mr Pinder) One of the things we have tried to do on this site is not just provide Government information for adults who are professionals—

1   Note by witness: June 2002 the former DTLR Web Team set up two new web sites; and Also, the web site was changed to inform users of the organisational changes and the existence of the two new sites. These changes were published to the Internet between 2.00pm and 3.00pm on that day. Back

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