How the Government Gateway works
Caveat. this is not a technical description of how the Gateway works. Nor does it cover the behind-the-scenes services that the Gateway provides in terms of messaging and interoperation between various government systems. But it is my description of the way it works at the front end–the signing-on bit–of government services. Because that’s where it’s most apparent, and that’s the bit that’s often misunderstood. I wrote this because I haven’t been able to find such a description anywhere else on the Internet. Which is slightly odd (isn’t it?) given that the Gateway has been around for about ten years.
For a service that plays a part in millions of online public service transactions a year, the Government Gateway is surprisingly poorly understood, and described. What you can find online varies from the noble attempt (but not exactly functionally descriptive) to the flamboyant. to the technical. and on to the slightly bizarre .
But nothing in plain language that really sets out what’s going on. And, perhaps, what isn’t. I have something of a fascination around the mechanics of authorisation and authentication, particularly when applied to government services, so here goes.
You want to a use a service that has the gateway sign-on apparatus at its front-end. Like Income Tax Self-Assessment. So you go to HMRC’s Self-Assessment service and register as a new, Individual, user (as opposed to an Organisation, Agent or Pensions administrator). Very quickly you’re taken through a brief request for your name and a password, a few warnings about the seriousness of what you’re about to do and the type of documentation you’ll need with you later on, and behold: a big long formal 12-digit User ID pops up. 848355815693 is the one I just registered.
Shriek! Did I just put my Gateway User ID out there on the Internet? Why, yes I did. (We’ll come back to why that doesn’t matter in a moment.) HMRC are now asking me to continue through the process and ‘enrol’ in the service. But we’ll pause there for the moment.
The Government Gateway uses an approach called “Registration and Enrolment” (R&E). First you have to register for a User ID (we just did that). Then you have to enrol in the various services you want to use with it. Enrolment means you go through a process, specific to the service you’re trying to use, of giving proof of who you are and that you’re entitled to use the service. Leaving it up to the service to decide how much proof is needed is a really good thing, surely? No avalanche of information required to use a simple, low-value, low-risk service? We’ll see…
In theory, therefore, you can add more and more services to your ID, leading to what becomes a single sign-on for lots of services, using the same User ID and password. In theory.
The great genius of the Gateway R&E design is that it does the reverse of what you’d expect. Instead of trying to be all secure up front–insisting you prove entitlement and identity straight away–it wilfully ignores all that and gives you a wholly anonymous, “throwaway” ID number. You can go and get as many as you like. Try it yourself, now. Really, go and do it a few times. You can either do it via hmrc.gov.uk (just my little joke ) or at the Gateway’s own site. They both work the same way.
It was once memorably described by a much cleverer colleague as “an insecure keyring to which you can attach secure keys”. (Great, until you need to find your keyring.)
The great folly of R&E is that it is utterly pointless, unsupportable, and ultimately valueless for normal people in real life. Have you spotted the gaping holes yet? Before we expose them in more detail, let’s quickly look at enrolment.
For HMRC self-assessment the enrolment process is the bit where you enter your Tax Reference Number and a few other bits of identifying information. And then you wait. For a PIN to arrive in the post. As a means of confirming you are who you say you are, before you can go any further. Not quite a seamless electronic transaction there, then. In the days leading up to Jan 31 st the post seems to move very slowly indeed. And you might lose that 12-digit number in the meantime.
DVLA have a twist on the process: not for them the “give us a name and here’s your ID” approach. Oh no. They ask for lots of other qualifying information, name, address, Date of Birth, Passport Number, and—of course—money before they get to the bit where they spit out your new provisional driving licence. Not bad, really.
They’ve almost masked the presence of the Gateway entirely. There’s a question at the very beginning saying: “While applying, you’ll be issued with a Government Gateway user ID. If you already have
a Government Gateway User ID, simply enter it with your password.” And if you haven’t, can’t remember it, or can’t be bothered—don’t fret, you can just get another one.
Getting a sinking feeling about the value of this User ID yet? (And actually, people will fret. They will spot this sort of “do I/don’t I need to…” ambiguity and it will delay or put off some people from using the service.) Doubt is something you really want to design out of online transactions.
So, behind the scenes, DVLA just went and generated you another Gateway User ID. One you’ll probably never need again, and one which carries no security risk, but isn’t necessarily anything to do with your other Gateway relationships. Unless you happened to have a previous one to hand when you applied. (I’d love to see some stats on how many do this, by the way.)
So, let’s look at what’s really bad about all this (and I stress again that I am talking about the user experience of the Gateway as a front end to transactions: Gateway R&E. Not about the back-end messaging standards which also form part of the Gateway suite of services):
1. Unsupportable. You can’t find your Gateway ID or password: what do you do? No point approaching the Government Gateway team—they don’t know who you are. They only recorded a name and password (which you might have lost). If you’re going to start resetting passwords and handing out IDs by email you need some better checks than that. They don’t have any information to check against. (And you’ve probably spawned several by now as you’ve been navigating through various online services. Which one have you lost?) So you approach HMRC, or whoever you need to deal with at the time. And they ask for your Tax Reference Number. Because your relationship is with them and that’s how they know you. The Gateway adds no value.
2. Take-up. Despite a bit of official posturing about it being government’s preferred online transaction authentication solution, and a few high-profile services which incorporate the front-end bit in some inconsistent way, most services routinely ignore it. Look at this service list. and this service has been operating for how many years, and has had how much spent on it? The Gateway is routinely ignored at the front end because it adds no value.
3. Lack of transparency or challenge. Try and find another piece like this on the internet that explains what’s going on and casts a critical eye over value. People seem remarkably reticent to discuss something that is a pretty big feature on the government technology landscape. If they do praise it, it looks like this. emphasising the benefits to service providers of using its protocols and messaging, but glossing over the broken stuff with phrases like “allows citizens to have one user ID and password”. Yes. In theory. Oh pur-lease.
4. It’s not Your Account for Government. It never can be. It’s designed not to be. This is a particularly pernicious failing. It raises expectations that it should, somehow, be a single connection point between citizen and state online. When it’s compromised, we panic. When it fails to add any value, we’re disappointed. We’ve been, effectively, duped into thinking some sort of useful, usable functionality has been added. It hasn’t.
5. It fundamentally misreads individual user behaviour online. People do share and lose their IDs and passwords. Putting in a wait for the postman does result in everything having to be redone, and in sapping user confidence in government’s online services. The situation is slightly better for businesses, and I will concede that for business-facing transactions (and for accountants, agents and other intermediaries), Gateway R&E probably does add some value. But there’s a hell of a difference between employing someone whose job it is to get these processes right, and providing services to individuals.
One can see why Gateway R&E had some attractions: ten years ago, when it started, there was massive political pressure to bring public services online. Earlier attempts to build a secure authentication framework across all services had foundered (and still do, see numerous other posts here on this). This half-way house created a way in which the press and public could be fed stuff like that BCS line above, and we public could be left to pick up the pieces of a miserable, broken, user experience.
A value-adding single sign-on experience can be yours. If only you don’t do stupid stuff like lose passwords, IDs, or a strange little card we send you, and if you can manage to navigate around the workarounds (like that DVLA “if you already have…” stuff) that we have to build into every service to make them actually get used.
Time for a few pointed questions and FOIs, I think. Because this is fundamentally difficult territory, I think it’s had a bit of an easy ride.