Government Gateway at 20 – looking back at the UK’s most successful digital identity system

by Joseph K. Clark

How time flies. Only a month ago, the Government Digital Service (GDS) celebrated its ninth birthday. Now it’s the turn of the Government Gateway, the UK’s cross-government identity, authentication, and transaction platform, to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

In 2001, the Government Gateway program achieved something almost unheard of in major government programs – it went from a standing start to live service on 25 January 2001 in just three hectic months.

The program was run initially by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and then later by the Office of the e-Envoy – the Government Digital Service (GDS) of its day – then, as now, part of the Cabinet Office. It involved more than 40 companies, large and small, and three departments actively engaged as both customers and critical friends: Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise (now joined together as HMRC), and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).

Government Gateway

Gateway was the first government program to pioneer radical changes to software development that are now more commonplace. These included a physically colocated, collaborative team of suppliers, departments, and users in one place; user research and user-centric design; agile approaches at scale; iterative, incremental builds and daily stand-ups; the use of a portfolio delivery team drawn from a wide range of suppliers, large and small; privacy and security specialists; and the adoption of open standards mandated by the UK government.

It was also the first time that the government disaggregated a service. The customer took the integration role – using Microsoft as the lead software developer, Dell for hardware, Cable and Wireless for hosting, and Sema (now Atos) for application support.

UK government was a platform pioneer.

As public sector information and services moved online during the early 1990s, it soon became apparent that many had similar technical needs. This recognition led to the development of shared platforms – central infrastructure built for re-use across the public sector – removing the need for every organization and service to develop its own near-identical systems.

The year 1994 saw the first significant implementation of central infrastructure with the launch of the Government Information Service – the Gov. uk of its day. It was the first considerable government website to start bringing together information and services in one place (see Figure 1). Just two years after its launch, it was already handling information from 180 public sector organizations.

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