Opinion published at 18/03/2016

THE BRITS LIKE QUEUING BUT NOT FOR ONLINE PUBLIC SERVICES

by Paul Fisher

The UK government is committed to transforming public services with its much vaunted, perhaps less celebrated, “digital-first” strategy. But if the public are going to get faster, better access to all government services, secure identity needs to be baked in.

Of course, making public services digital is a good idea and the UK is hardly alone in pursuing this goal across Europe. Digital public services reduce costs, boost efficiency and provide convenience for citizens. 

By and large the public are in favour of digital public services. The long Saturday morning queue at the post office to renew your car tax is a distant memory. Hell, you don’t even need a tax disc on your car anymore - how digitally advanced is that?  

Seriously though, the more services central government departments and local government can deliver online the better. Consumers, long used to 24/7 access to their bank accounts on a multitude of differenet devices, and online shopping that is moving to one hour deliveries, are now expecting the same of government particularly in relation to personal financial matters.

UK revenue agency HMRC is committed to a digital programme that should transform how the UK’s growing army of self-employed and very small businesses manage their tax affairs wiith a service modelled on digital banking.

For now, HMRC’s online services remain stuck in the Noughties. Unintuitive, unfriendly and dense interfaces make mistakes and abandoned transactions common - with resultant costs for both user and agency. 

It’s not all that secure either - if banks were still using a username and password to access accounts they would rightly be castigated. Yet all that stops a hacker from accessing your tax, national insurance and other personal details is just that. And, potentially a route into HMRC itself.

A new survey by YouGov on digital public services revealed 81% of British citizens expect to be able to access key government services easily and securely online. Two key words there. And they want the same levels of convenience they are already getting from their online banks, themselves looking to go to the next stage of transformation of their own customer facing operations

Secure identity is then critical. The survey found that 52% of all respondents said that verifying their identity online anywhere, and at any time was the most convenient option for them, while 61% of full-time workers and 64% of full-time students said that verifying their identity online was important.

Access to government services remains a long drawn out process that involves a mailed out approval in some cases - HMRC, for example, takes several days to process online access details.

If digital government is to achieve its cost and efficiency benefits, government needs to put secure identity at its heart and all else - convenience speed and added value - follows from that. 

And it needs to ensure that it creates a single identity to access all government and local government services for life. Such a secure digital identity could potentially replace the current National Insurance number that all UK citizens are given on their 16th brithday. Now that's a present worth waiting for.