Examination of Witnesses(Questions 60-79)|
CB, MR ANDREW
WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE 2002
60. You seem to be coming back again and again
to emphasising your use of the web has a lot of benefits, whether
hard or soft benefits. What you still have not satisfied me about
is whether we are ever going to know whether the production of
these benefits is of greater value than the cost of providing
(Mr Pinder) I have genuinely tried to answer your
question to satisfy you on that. When we want to spend money on
delivering a service electronically, we make a business case,
and people have to make a business case to spend the money. When
they get permission to spend the money they have prima facie
demonstrated they will get benefits which justify the spending
of the money. That is what is done in every sort of expenditure,
whether it is on web enablement or other things. Sometimes people
judge the benefits to be worthwhile even if there are not hard
savings but they offer a better service, but a business case is
made, no difference is made for business cases being made on web
enablement or on building a new local office to deliver a better
service, exactly the same justifications are used.
61. Are you saying to me that every time any
work has been done on the web by any government department it
has always been costed in advance and found to be cost effective
(Mr Pinder) No, clearly it would be wrong of me to
give that blanket statement, first of all, because I could not
answer for individual government departments. But I do know that
where there is a programme of work, for example, building a site
and continually enhancing it, where little bits of work are being
done week by week, then that programme of work in my own caseand
I think the same standards are used by the Treasury elsewherewould
have to be cost-justified. I have, for example, the Government
Gateway which cost £20 million
to build and then is being continually enhanced. We made a cost
justification to build the thing in the first place and we have
cost-justified the enhancements year on year as the thing gets
richer in functionality.
62. Have you also tested all those business
cases you have made after the event to prove they have justified
the cost because they have produced the value you have expected
(Mr Pinder) This area of expenditure is a very new
area of expenditure. Part of the Government's methodology of running
a project, and it applies to electronic government projects as
well, is exactly that that sort of analysis is done. Did the programme
do what it was asked to do, did it deliver the benefits it was
supposed to do, did it deliver all the benefits on time. That
is the normal audit which goes on and I would expect that approach
to be used in the "e" area just as it would be used
in other areas.
63. Now you are confusing me. You appear to
be saying every time anything has been done on the web, it has
been costed in advance, the value you expected to get from it
has been valued in advance, and you have found the value made
it worthwhile. What is more, after the event, in every case you
revalued, you have gone back, you have checked it did produce
the value you expected, and you presumably worked out whether
or not in that instance it was therefore cost effective. Adding
all those instances together should, I would have thought, have
proved to you whether or not the Government's use of the web was
cost effective, but I was told just now by Mavis McDonald that
you did not know whether the Government's use of the web was cost
effective. Somewhere we have gone wrong.
(Mr Pinder) I am not sure I put all that in my answer.
This expenditure is largely capital expenditure, it is expected
to deliver benefits over a long period of time, those benefits
often come from people using the service, and therefore whilst
one can build a business case and say, "We expect the site
to do the following things, we expect the growth in traffic to
this site to be as follows", the full benefits will not be
discovered until the site is well enough known to hit its optimum
traffic levels, until we have been able to release the benefits
elsewhere. As I said, this technology is extremely new, what one
can do is build business cases and use one's best judgment that
the business case looks credible and then monitor the delivery
against the targets embedded in the business case which we would
normally have, to make sure the site is performing as well as
it should do and that in the longer-term the benefits are delivered,
but we have not reached the long-term yet.
(Mavis McDonald) Partly what I was trying to do was
to answer the fairly standard point that we are not collectively
pulling together the information across government on all the
individual departments' websites and doing a collective analysis.
We are doing an audit of standards and the Treasury, as Andrew
has said, is taking an overview on business cases, and we would
expect those to be audited in their implementation. The other
point I was trying to make was slightly different. Once you have
your website up and running and you are used to it and you have
made the initial investment, you start to think differently about
what it is you are doing. So on some of the things I was describing
like consultation, your presumption about how you will consult
and how your stakeholders on client groups, and perceptions about
what you should be doing when you consult, change, and it becomes
a different working practice. So it becomes more part of your
overhead of having to do things differently and you do not necessarily
spend a lot more money each year. What you might re-visit is your
communications strategy and whether you are using all the elements
of it to best effect, rather than saying, "What are we doing
on our website?" There are lots of examples now of where
that shift is beginning to take place.
64. Let me go on from that. There was a report
the other day that the Inland Revenue had to shut down its on-line
tax filing system after complaints that taxpayers' details were
accidentally put on-line. What are you doing to make sure that
the system is totally secure, not just in terms of whether or
not financial payments may go adrift in some way, but in terms
of whether or not there is privacy of individual's details and
(Mr Pinder) I cannot speak on behalf of the Inland
Revenue who have detailed knowledge of this but, as you would
expect, I am reasonably close to what has been happening there.
The Revenue are clearly very concerned about the fact that snippets
of taxpayers' information was visible to a few other taxpayers,
and that is clearly regrettable, clearly wrong and that should
not have happened. It is worthwhile trying to get the thing into
proportion here. Whilst it is regrettable that any one taxpayer's
information is made available to people, it might be helpful to
the Committee if I gave my understanding of what happened in that
situation, though the Inland Revenue will be issuing a more detailed
65. Briefly if you will, because I am more interested
in the general point.
(Mr Pinder) The situation is that with one particular
internet service provider, working with the front-end of the Inland
Revenue site, about eight or nine taxpayers were each able to
look at one other person's brief details. That was because of
a technical problem in the way that particular internet service
provider interacted with the system run by the Inland Revenue.
That persisted for a short period of time, the site has now been
closed down. We want to stop that happening again. The reason
the site has not come back up again is because the Inland Revenue
are doing very, very extensive testing indeed to make sure that
cannot happen again. We have very stringent standards on security
which we want people to adhere to and we take incidents like the
Inland Revenue one extremely seriously, so it is regrettable.
I am as concerned as anyone here, probably more concerned, in
this Committee about that particular site. It is deeply regrettable.
66. What are you doing to prevent that sort
of thing happening again?
(Mr Pinder) Sites have some technical standards which
they are supposed to adhere to and in this particular case it
appears, through a quirk, a technical standard which we were not
aware of caused the problem. We are now learning from that experience
and the Inland Revenue will be making sure that every other government
department is aware of the particular peculiar set of circumstances
which caused this breach.
Mr Rendel: Good. Thank you, Chairman.
67. Could I refer Mr Broadbent and his colleague
to pages 23 and 24 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report,
and paragraph 2.22 which goes over both pages? It says in that
paragraph, "On the Web site in use throughout virtually all
of 2001 we sought information as a new business owner on whether
we needed to pay VAT. In June and again in November the information
given on the site was elementary in character, with most Web pages
being reproductions of non-Web leaflets." Has anything been
done since then to improve that situation and, if so, what?
(Mr Fraser) We carried out a significant overhaul
of our website in the latter part of last year. We were aware
of limitations in terms of content, in terms of ease of use and
in terms of how often the data was refreshed. Whilst we are not
complacent we have it all right, we have made significant steps
forward. We are now receiving significantly more positive feedback
and it is considered to be far easier to use and more reliable.
68. That is reassuring to hear but could you
be a bit more specific about what improvements you have made?
(Mr Fraser) We have provided a search facility which
allows us to search across the data we hold on our site, so rather
than navigate aimlessly through our content you can reach material
which interests you. We provide service up-dating which is current
rather than material which is up to a month old. We have put in
place publishing processes to alleviate that problem. We have
put on to our site lists of contact details so that an individual
who cannot find the information they are requiring on-line can
do so through a telephone call to our national advice service
or by e-mail to those advice centres. Those are the major enhancements.
69. In the same paragraph it says at the conclusion,
"The search engine on the site throughout most of 2001 was
especially problematiccomplex to use yet incapable of finding
the basic search terms we submitted." I take it from the
answer you have just given that problem has been resolved as well?
(Mr Fraser) The problem arose because of the way we
stored the data so the search engine which was quite rudimentary
was not picking up the right answers because we were storing the
data in a very simplistic way. We have changed the way we have
stored the data so the search engine can now pick it up more accurately.
70. What is the evidence about those changes
and improvements from people? You said you have had positive feed-back,
what is that positive feed-back? Are more people using that facility?
Are there more people using it successfully? How are people letting
you know they are pleased with those changes?
(Mr Fraser) There is a facility on-line to provide
feed-back to us which is extensively used. The individual number
of visits to our site has risen from 170,000 in September to about
210,000 today. That is not a huge increase but it is significant.
We encourage our contact centres to provide an opportunity for
people to be asked if they have visited our site and, if they
were unsuccessful in finding the information or what they were
looking for, that is referred straight back to our web publishing
team who then take corrective action.
71. This is directed at Mavis McDonald and her
colleagues. Page 57 and figure 21 over the page from it. Quoting
from part of the paragraph, "The Department for Education
and Skills has been top site for most of this period, but DEFRA,
previously the Ministry of Agriculture, soared to prominence during
the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001." There is a self-evident
reason for that. It then concludes towards the end, "Three
sites with small numbers seemed to have weak or no growth trendsthe
Lord Chancellor's Department main site, the Department of Culture,
Media and Sport, and the Ministry of Defence (for the short period
for which the department has any data)." Is this because
of the characteristics of the departments themselves, that some
are stronger than others, or is it something to do with the type
of site it is?
(Mr Pinder) I cannot give you an answer on the individual
sites because I have not myself looked at the Culture, Media and
Sport site recently, so I cannot give an opinion. We do have,
as it were, a list of the top 20 sites and the numbers of visitors
they have. In this month of April we have more up-to-date information
on my own site. It varies greatly. For example, in January, the
Inland Revenue site leapt up in the number of visits because they
clearly have a lot of people filing their tax returns at the last
minute and going to that site. Clearly during the 11 September
situation a number of sites, including in particular our site,
had a very large number of hits as people tried to get some news,
and other sites had difficulty coping. So there is a seasonal
or topical issue around all this, where something is particularly
important, and we have already referred to the Number 10 website
around the Government reshuffle which obviously got a lot of attention.
Obviously the old DTLR site had some increase for similar sorts
of reasons at the time. So there are lots of variations which
are caused by seasonal or topical issues. On top of that, there
are some sites which are by their nature going to be more visited
than other sites because their information is something which
people regularly want to access rather than finding out about
once. One of the reasons we have come up with the UK Online site
is that it is directly linked to where people want to go to properly.
I also agree with the implication of the question that there is
a variation in the quality of government sites, and we try to
address that by using the Government's web guidelines to try to
improve everyone's quality and also provide guidelines on how
to have standard navigation on the sites, so every site feels
familiar to people even if it is the first time they have visited
it because they know where the home page is and so on. I would
absolutely accept that the quality varies and some is very, very
good indeed, and some not so good. We try to reward quality and
letting people know about that by having awards and so on and
trying to rectify the poor quality.
72. Do you think it would be helpful to have
some evaluation? Some things are predictable, tax returns at a
certain time, and probably the new academic year would create
additional demands on education and so on. But for the non-obvious
factors, would it be worth doing some work to look to what extent
the quality of the sites affects use and utility?
(Mr Pinder) It would and it is and we do it. This
Report itself has done work on this by looking at a series of
features and tracking them against what was done previously, and
there has been an improvement across the board in that area. The
NAO work has been helpful in helping to track those features.
As I said in answer to an earlier question, we ourselves are also
going to do two sets of audit, taking about a hundred sites and
we are picking out the sites which are of a particular interest
and comparing and contrasting and looking at what lessons can
be learned there. So I take and agree with your point, we should
be doing this and we do do it. In addition, there are external
people, not just the NAO, but people like SOCITM, the Society
of Information Technology Management, who are doing a lot of work
particularly with local government in comparing sites and features
on those sites, and that is very valuable work. We will be joining
with them to try to enhance that work so that it becomes useful
for all of us.
73. I hope this does not make me sound like
a modern Luddite but do you detect a sense in which the greater
access people have either to information or to services or to
transactions as citizens, or subjects, rather than commercial
transactions, means there is a growing source for some sections
of the community to be socially excluded?
(Mr Pinder) Clearly, we want to make as much information
available as possible to people, and by the nature of things the
web is only accessible to those people who can have access to
the web, so we are trying to improve access to the internet. There
is physical access, and Mavis McDonald referred earlier to the
UK Online centres, and by the end of the year we will have 6,000
of those which will improve physical access. We also hope to improve
access to sites for people who have disabilities or in some way
are handicapped in the way they read materials, so our sites cater
for people who are blind, we have an RNIB four-star award for
UK Online. We want to make sure the sites are accessible for those
people who have reading difficulties so reading age needs to be
thought about. We are not always successful with that but it is
a feature we are deeply conscious of. On top of those accessibility
issues, we do want to try and use intermediaries to make information
and transactions available to those people who do not have access
to the internet, and I referred earlier to the work we have done
with the CAB and other intermediaries. The fundamental point you
are raising though is true, the increasing use of web technology,
both in the government arena and outside in the wider private
sector, means that a digital divide does exist. People have access
to cheaper air fares if they use the internet than they would
otherwise have. That is why we spend quite a bit of effort promoting
general awareness of the internet to get as many people as possible
taking part in that. We had a campaign last autumn and we will
be having another campaign this autumn to do that. But I take
your point and agree with it, we are concerned about that.
74. One of the problems in my own constituency
is that there is a ward which is measurably one of the most deprived
areas in Knowsley, which itself is one of the most deprived areas
of the borough, and one of the things that has been done through
European Objective 1 money is literally put computers into households
to particularly help those children of school age. So they have
clearly noted that this is one way of overcoming disadvantages
in terms of poverty.
(Mr Pinder) There are a number of schemes like that
under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme. Something which sometimes
gets overlooked is that digital television also provides access
to the internet, albeit in a very limited way, and there are about
7 million digital sets which are enabled for digital television
in households around the UK, many of them in households which
do not have access to PCs. We have understood that and are trying
to use digital television as a means of providing web access.
We have just gone live on Sky Interactive with UK Online to provide
access and we have an arrangement with them whereby all government
websites, once the content is suitable for digital television,
will be accessible through that medium.
75. One final question. I noted, Mr Pinder,
you said earlier quite a lot of the work which is done in terms
of developing new services and new technology is through consultants.
Has any thought ever been given to providing a kind of government
in-house consultancy service?
(Mr Pinder) In order to?
76. In order to actually have a group of people
with the right level of skill and expertise within government
to be able to offer their services as and when they are required
by either yourselves or departments?
(Mr Pinder) We try to do some of that both in my department
and other departments like the Office of Government Commerce where
there are, for example, people to help with procurement. We try
to offer some help in particular situations. For example, two
of my staff have been recently engaged with the Inland Revenue
and their particular problems and there have been a number of
other areas where we have put people in for a short period of
time to help them. I am very constrained with resources and therefore
I have got limits as to what I can do. Therefore, we try to get
over that by issuing generic guidelines like our web guidance
to say let us help make it available to everyone rather than just
focusing on you. So there has been thought but it has not been
felt to be cost-effective and it perhaps makes more sense to hire
people in from the private sector as necessary.
Chairman: Thank you, Mr Howarth. Mr Geraint
77. Can I ask Mr Broadbent a few questions first
of all. It was mentioned in terms of take-up that we have got
something like 2,500 VAT users who are registered out of a total
of 1.65 million. That is about right, is it not? Can I ask you
what information you have got in terms of customer segmentation
in respect of the usage of the 1.65 million universe and, given
the information you have got now, how that influences how realistic
you think the targets are to get 50% usage by 2005?
(Mr Broadbent) I would like to ask Mr Fraser to comment
in a moment on market segmentation where we are doing some work.
There are some quite specific issues there. If I may just comment
on the general point. As I was saying earlier, one of the issues
that has come out of our focus on take-up as well as putting services
on-line is that we are unlikely to drive take-up in that as a
single product across the whole board unless we develop the way
we are e-enabling our services.
78. As you have mentioned it, and you mentioned
it before, I was going to pursue this. Just as an example, at
one point I was running a small travel company turning over just
over £1 million and the VAT returns are quite complicated
for travel schemes, the TOM scheme, and basically you did all
this analysis and ended up filling in some boxes on a form and
sending it off with a cheque. What incentive having done all this
off-screen analysis to satisfy the law would there be to send
the information down the line as opposed to putting it in an envelope?
It seems to me very little.
(Mr Broadbent) I think you are absolutely right. I
do not believe that if we simply stand in a position where you
can fill in a VAT return on-line as opposed to at your desk, people
will do that because there is very little added value.
79. How are you going to change the product
to put in that extra? Are we going to be able to buy cut-price
insurance or something? Will you have an amusing movie in the
middle? What are you going to do?
(Mr Broadbent) I do not think it is the right approach
to incentivise people to use a service which does not add value.
What we are trying to do is encourage more means of making the
interaction with our organisation an added value experience and
that is going to require us going rather beyond taking our existing
system and simply creating a screen face rather than a paper face
and change the system.
3 Note by witness: The actual cost was £15.6