Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)


MONDAY 13 MAY 2002

  20. You admitted "... that it was not possible to cut staff on the front line such as nurses, doctors and teachers. But these make up only about half of the 4m public sector employees". You said "... of the other 2m, up to 40% could be replaced".
  (Mr Pinder) First of all, I did not give an interview to the Sunday Times, nor did I say anything approaching that. Those quotes are just not what I said. In making my differentiation between the private sector and the public sector it is perfectly correct to say that I did point out much of the public sector consists of frontline staff, doctors, nurses, teachers, people who drive dust carts and so on, many of whom, whilst their service might be improved by the use of IT are not completely dependent upon it in the way they deliver their services. Therefore the private sector and the public sector are very hard to compare in the way they might deliver services. Saying that 20 per cent of public sector jobs might go over a period of time compared to 20 per cent of private sector jobs would be a completely wrong conclusion, or wrong parallel to draw. I am bound to say the article has got it completely upside down.

  21. I accept; we are all often quoted out of context and so on, often by the Sunday Times. I am not against efficiency savings in Government and redeployment of people or getting rid of people whose job does not exist any more. I seem to remember that in this report it says that in the Land Registry, where it used to take ten people to do a particular task, it now only takes one. Fantastic. Surely you should have the courage to say yes, that will mean traditional Whitehall jobs will disappear.
  (Mr Pinder) I am sure that the Land Registry in talking to their staff about that did have the courage to say that. Whether one can then extrapolate out across the whole public sector and say that every department and every organisation will be cutting staff in that sort of way as a consequence of delivering better e-services would be wrong, simply because you will find much of the effort we put into delivering better e-services will be about delivering a better quality of service or providing more resource. That is why I think that Departments and organisations need to look at the individual projects they are implementing in order to discuss their savings. That is one reason why I would not generalise across the whole public sector.

  22. If you take the Passport Agency, when you have a system where you can apply for your passport entirely on-line in the sense of filling in a form and it being processed automatically, many people in the Passport Agency who at the moment do a fairly routine clerical job will not have a job any more. Is that not the case? They may be redeployed elsewhere in the Passport Agency or in Government. I am not saying those individuals might become unemployed, but that the jobs they do at the moment would disappear.
  (Mr Pinder) There may well be many such examples, just as there would be examples of people who are taking advantage of IT and their job is not affected at all, it is just that the service they deliver is improved. I agree with you that you have to look at these things on a case by case basis and as Departments come forward with projects which do make improvements in efficiency, they have to look at the consequences of those improvements in efficiency and how they are going to deploy any savings they might get. I agree that there will be examples where quite dramatic savings can be made and that is one of the benefits of this technology. There are also lots of situations where dramatic improvements of service can take place and that is another advantage of this technology.

  23. I am a great supporter of the work you are doing. You have a very ambitious target. I was going to ask what exactly you meant by your target, but you seem, unless I have got it wrong, to be absolutely clear that all Government services, with one or two exceptions such as various things to do with victims of crime and so on, will be available on-line, not just information about those services, but we will be able to apply for a driving licence, apply for a passport, file our tax returns, do those kinds of things, interact with Government, claim benefits and so on, on-line by 2005.
  (Mr Pinder) Yes. The Prime Minister's statement in March 2000 was quite clear that all Government services will be available on-line.

  24. That is not just information about Government services. I was checking out your website this morning. At the moment if you want to apply for a passport, sure enough you can fill in the form on-line, but then they post it to you and tell you to sign it, enclose a couple of photos and post it back. So we shall be able to apply for a passport on-line in 2005.
  (Mr Pinder) I do not particularly want to go into individual cases. The commitment is all Government services on-line. In that particular case, that service has been delivered on-line. My issue with that particular service is that it is not yet a complete service. In order to make it really attractive to people, we ought to be able to complete the whole transaction on-line and therefore that falls more into the category of take-up of services, making the services very attractive to take up rather than simply fulfilling the somewhat bald commitment to get the service itself on-line.

  25. Just being able to print off an application form on-line as opposed to going to your local post office is not really delivery of service on-line, is it?
  (Mr Pinder) I agree with that. The submission of something electronically is in that particular case what we count as on-line. Behind that particular service there are lots of complications around the authentication of the person who is sending the form in and sending in their photographs. Therefore there are some dependencies which may well inhibit the Passport Office being able to deliver the whole process completely on-line. It may require at some stage the submission of some document to prove a person's identity. Until we get to the stage where everyone can do that, it will not be possible to deliver that service completely on-line. Within the realms of the available technology and the available authentication techniques, I should be looking to have a service which is available on-line in the way you describe it.

  26. That includes applications for driving licences, applications for benefits. Many Government services do require authenticating documents. Indeed this very good academic article, which I actually had time to read, says that Government obsession with secrecy around the world is one of the problems which delays the implementation of e-government around the world. The trouble is that many, many services require supporting documents. We know that as MPs because we have to deal with benefit cases and so on. Are you really saying that by 2005 people will be able to apply for benefits on-line, maybe they will have to put something in the post or maybe scan a letter from a doctor into the computer and send it?
  (Mr Pinder) In that particular service, as in all services which are just focused on a Department, it would be better to talk to the people who are doing it in the Department for Work and Pensions. What I am trying to do is ensure that Departments do deliver a service which is an on-line service and they do deliver it in a way which makes people want to do it. In delivering a benefits service, whether it is practical to ask people to take documents and get them scanned in and sent electronically may well not be practical in this timescale. It would not be a sensible thing to do if one wanted to get decent take-up. What we are trying to do is make sure that where people want to access a service, it is available in an attractive way electronically. Whether one wants to go the Full Monty on everything, where the whole transaction end to end is electronic, in some respects is over ambitious and impractical.

  27. Are we not, to a degree anyway, now playing catch-up? I looked at the US and Canadian Government websites and, with the greatest respect, I felt they were a lot more sophisticated that the UK Government one. For a start you can apply for Canadian and US Government benefits on-line; I hit a problem when they started asking for my social security number. There was nothing like that on the UK Government website.
  (Mr Pinder) I was talking to a man called Mark Foreman, who is my sort of counterpart in this particular area in the USA (at federal level) and he was saying exactly the opposite, that they feel they are playing catch-up with us and that in fact they do regard themselves as being behind the UK in the delivery of Government services. In order to put at least some facts behind this argument, we have a variety of surveys which are carried out, some of which show us well in the lead, some of which show us behind. We have asked the Office of National Statistics to carry out some international benchmarking to place us firmly in the league table of the top industrial countries and that benchmarking is going out now. The ONS have put a proposed methodology out to their international counterparts.

  28. There is a rather good table. You do not have to waste all this money doing that because there is a rather good table 10 on page 23 of the NAO report which says you are behind Canada, Singapore, the United States. When we look at level of services, you are also behind Norway, Finland and Australia.
  (Mr Pinder) I would argue that is relatively subjective commentary. What we want to try to do is provide a public benchmark which international counterparts agree to, which looks at Government services and a range of other services, including for example, our situation rolling out broad band and so on, which everyone can sign up to and recognise as a proper comparison. I do not accept that we are significantly behind other countries and I would argue in fact that in most countries we are regarded as being in the lead.

  29. In America you can apply for a student loan in effect, or what they call a FAFSA on-line and in the "Do it on-line" bit of the British website, the things you can do are: nominate someone for an honour, which if you are a party leader is quite useful, but otherwise not so useful; you can help the homeless, which we all want to do but it is about volunteering your time; we can find out what is on in the UK, but we can buy Time Out for that; you can let the Post Office know you have changed your address; you can get a fishing licence, but when I clicked that my computer warned me it was not a secure page and that it did not have an up-to-date security certificate on it.
  (Mr Pinder) That page on our website is simply designed to give some examples of the sorts of things people can do on-line. There are about 260-270 services which can be accessed on-line. Lots of other transactions people can do on-line, for example booking and paying for the theory driving test, claiming to recover debts on-line. There are lots and lots of services. If you wish, we can provide you with a much more comprehensive list than the one we put onto our website.

  30. You did quote the only one which I did genuinely think was really useful which was booking the theory driving test. I suppose if I ever have to reclaim court debts it could be quite useful. Why does the fishing licence web page not have an adequate security certificate? My computer warned me. It said there was a problem with the security certificate, it had expired or was not valid.
  (Mr Pinder) We shall certainly be taking that up with DEFRA and the Environment Agency. I suspect that is a technical issue around the fact that they have not yet got the proper certificate out of their website provider to certify the thing is free from viruses. You can take it that it will be.[2]

  31. So these are really your ten flagship on-line services.
  (Mr Pinder) They are examples, not necessarily flagships.

  32. They must be. There must be a reason why you chose these ten to put on the main home page.
  (Mr Pinder) We chose the ten simply to show the range of services which are available rather than to pick out the most significant ones. If it would be helpful to the Committee, I am happy to provide a longer list of services which are available on-line if that would help.

  Chairman: I should just be happy if you were to answer Mr Osborne's questions really.

  33. One final issue about security. This academic report does say that security is generally a problem, that there is a culture in Whitehall around security. However, there does seem to be a practical impact which is that it says in paragraph 2.12, page 35, "Some smaller departments are concerned about the cost and practicality of obtaining the necessary accreditation covering document security and transfer which is required before they can connect to the Government Secure Intranet". Could you expand on what that is talking about?
  (Mr Pinder) Yes and it is a valid concern. The Government Secure Intranet (GSI) connects major Departments because a lot of confidential information is passed around on that intranet and also because if it were attacked, by a denial-of-service attack for example, it could cause severe damage to the national infrastructure. We protect it quite tightly. Therefore in order to connect to the GSI, whoever wants to connect to the GSI has to have certification that their own network itself is secure. That is quite an expensive process currently and is done by an organisation called CESG which is an offshoot of GCHQ, they being the experts in internet security in the Government realm.

  34. No wonder the fishing licence site was not secure if they had to go to GCHQ.
  (Mr Pinder) They are an accreditation authority for the GSI. CESG is a semi-commercial arm of GCHQ which does a number of these sorts of services, not just for central government and local government but also for private firms who are part of the critical national infrastructure. We generally accept that that process is cumbersome, expensive and we want to make it much more efficient. We are working currently with CESG to make that so. We want to make it much slicker for small departments and indeed local authorities just to be able to connect, in a much more informal and faster way, into the GSI in order to be able to link into these central services.

  35. One final question, if I may, to Ms McDonald about e-mails. In the academic article, which, once you get beyond the jargon, is very interesting, it says that there is a problem with the use of e-mails in the Civil Service because of the hierarchy of the Civil Service, that e-mails are inherently an informal way of communicating within an organisation. I thought as the Permanent Secretary you would know about hierarchies as you are at the top of one. Do you use e-mail regularly in dealings with your Deputy Secretaries and Under Secretaries?
  (Mavis McDonald) All Cabinet Office business is done by e-mail.

  36. There is no longer that endless stream of paper that I remember when I was a special adviser.
  (Mavis McDonald) There are streams of paper because we get a lot of external communication coming into the Cabinet Office which is not at the moment sent by e-mail. Some of that comes from the House and we are hoping we shall be able to improve some of that over time. In terms of internal communications with the Department to Ministers and between officials and to other Departments, we use e-mail.

  37. Maybe this is a bit too personal about the way you run your office. Do you read them on-line or does your Private Secretary print them off?
  (Mavis McDonald) Anything very long I tend to have printed off, but I go in in the morning, put on my machine, click through the stuff that has come in and anything I can deal with immediately I will deal with immediately. This caused some surprise when I first started.

  38. How junior can someone be to send you an e-mail? Below grade 5?
  (Mavis McDonald) No, anybody can send me an e-mail if they are the appropriate person to be communicating on that subject. We do not have a hierarchy which says you can only do it through various steps. I would go back directly to the person who sent me the e-mail.

  39. That is very good news. It does say here that if e-mail addresses are not seen as official, the moves towards proactive service delivery will be almost impossible to implement. I commend the Cabinet Office.
  (Mavis McDonald) I do not think colleagues in other Departments behave any differently. The take-up of e-mail and the use of the GSI to get that interconnectivity between Departments over the last two or three years has really transformed the way business is done.

  Mr Osborne: They have not let me into a Government Department for over five years.

2   Note by witness: I am sure you will be pleased to hear that this message was displayed in error, and that the site is in fact completely secure. The Environment Agency has confirmed that the problem lies not in the site itself but in the interface between the browser and the VeriSign Global certificate which is used to secure `Fish-e' transactions. The occurrence of this bug might occur on any site where this browser and authentication mechanism are being used in combination. Microsoft and Veri Sign take this error seriously and are taking steps to correct the situation. In the meantime, the Environment Agency is taking action to alert and reassure users of the site, for example they are placing a notice on the `Fish-e' FAQ section to warn customers of the problem and that their transaction is indeed secure until the problem can be rectified. You may also be interested to hear that since February, there have been over 18,000 transactions on the site, but only two emails from members of the public reporting this error. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 28 August 2002