ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]
Catching up with the Banking Revolution
by Phil Cain
Public sector bodies in the UK have been curiously slow to offer online payment facilities to citizens for taxes, fees or fines, given that they stand to benefit hugely from moving away from labour-intensive paper-based systems. Citizens in turn gain the convenience of instant, 24-hour service.
The most recent snapshot survey of local authority websites by the Society of IT Managers in local government taken around December 2000 found just ten councils that offered an online council tax payment facility. However, the last few months have seen something of a rush to fill this gap, prompted by the steady advance of the governments targets for all transactions to move online and growing public confidence in Internet payment.
The most popular ready-made solution being used by councils is Girobanks BillPay service (https://www.billpayment.co.uk). By signing up to BillPay, some 94 local councils are now accepting or gearing up to accept online payments - or to be more accurate, to allow the bank to accept payments on their behalf, with councils receiving electronic notification that can feed directly into their databases.
The beauty of BillPay is its simplicity. To make a payment, people registered on BillPay enter their username and password and then enter the Girobank number on the invoice and their debit card details. Because the site contains no confidential billing or account information it cannot be incorrectly disclosed. Though BillPay currently accepts only debit card payments, a spokesman said it is working on an upgrade that will accept allow credit card payments in the future.
As well as using the Internet as an adjunct to its traditional payment intermediary business, Girobank is hoping to use digital technology to streamline its traditional Post Office-based payments business. As part of the trial, citizens of Taunton Deane Borough Council (http://www.tauntondeane.gov.uk) are currently able to pay bills at the Post Office using smart cards rather than paper slips.
For extra flexibility and control, not least over costs, a number of councils have developed their own online payment solutions. Among them is Camden, which in June launched online payment services for council tax, business rates, housing rents and parking tickets in conjunction with Datacash and Barclays Merchant Services. In the three months since its launch, the online payment facility (http://www.camden.gov.uk/pay) has taken 209,000 UK pounds, says project manager John Stoddart.
Stoddart says the decision to develop the system, on which he said the council had so far spent 200,000 UK pounds, was taken to provide a complete solution. Readymade alternatives, Stoddart said, do not offer the level of customisation the council required. Unlike the Girobank system, users of the Camden payment system are able to see the final balance of an account, but cannot yet see a full transaction history.
The challenge of accepting online payments was part of a wider programme of reform for Camden, said head of IT Glynn Evans. He said the council ultimately hopes to offer services seamlessly, more efficiently and at no extra cost.
Another example of a council going its own way is Brighton and Hove, which is using a system supplied by Radius to take debit card payments for a range of services (https://ww2.brighton-hove.gov.uk).
However, no UK council has yet achieved the comprehensive online transaction solutions of the best councils in other highly wired-up countries including the US and Australia.
The government of Australian Capital Territory, for example, which serves the nations capital city Canberra, offers its citizens a wide range of online payment and transaction services, from conveyancing fees to firewood collection permits and in the US, the city of Boston offers a similarly impressive range of services (http://www.ci.boston.ma.us/transactions/default.asp).
It may be some time before UK councils catch up with this level of service, but at least this year they seem to be making good headway at last.
This article first appeared in E-Government Bulletin, a free monthly newsletter. To subscribe send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org