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 31st 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.

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131 Responses

  1. Its as bad as you describe it. It really is. The boss goes mad when she has to use it and has a big pile of paper with numbers on it. Once she’s in she gets a cup of tea and gets on with it. But I hide under the desk until she gets logged in. She uses it for CTS online cattle database, VAT and RPA. She says the RPA are moving to Business Link logins in March and she says that will be even worse as they are from the same mindset. Jobs for the boys she says. Wuff.

  2. PhilT says:

    I have a document containing all my Gateway IDs, passwords and which services work or otherwise with each.

    It is a complete farce compared with the likes of Amazon where I can spend a lot more with a hell of a lot less hassle.

  3. Will says:

    I’ll second that. It’s really poor on the UX front and the wait for the post is a joke. Round of applause for raising this.

  4. Paul Johnston says:

    I got an Government Gateway ID six or seven years ago and have been so embarrassed about losing it (and not interested in waiting for the postman again) that I gave up filling my taxes online! A poor faulty process certainly can put you off!

  5. Hi Paul

    … well you can guess where the “friendly” user ID came from (look a little further to the West). And there’s a contradiction at the heart of the Gateway’s design which doesn’t help, but which was there for a good reason: to offer single sign-on across government services, but also to allow people to have different User IDs for each service if they wanted. The latter for those who did not want a single system to have an overview of all their dealings with government.

    Of course, back in the heady days of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s – when both the idea of a single government portal and a single authentication and transaction engine seemed a good idea – the Government Gateway was meant to be invisible. Ideally it would never have issued any User IDs. The original intent was that the smartcards that the Post Office and others were about to roll out would be used by citizens and businesses alike. The role of the Gateway was merely to enable users (if they wished) to link together their various government services to one login ID. Then reality intervened, the bubble burst and no-one was out there issuing smartcards and other authentication tokens. Stepping into the gap were the Gateway’s, er, “memorable” User IDs.

    Less mentioned is that the Gateway also provides a single transaction engine that can receive “intelligent forms” (ie those that span multiple departments and transactions) and then control the business logic of breaking them into separate backend forms and managing them across multiple departments and services. The user would then have “joined-up” front office services even if the back office of government, as it does, remained silod at the backend. Of course, we’ve not seen many of those “intelligent forms” in reality (in fact, are there *any*?): departments have remained silos and even though proving it all worked was done back in 1998/1999 for the iForms project nothing much seems to have happened since.

    Well, the lipstick stuck on the pig has grown even less attractive with the passing years. The last decade saw little happen with transforming the backends and processes of online government. As ever, between the aspirational vision and the reality fell the shadow.

    With the work of Stefan Brands, Kim Cameron and organisations like Mydex you could achieve what was desired on the authentication front without needing a Gateway at all today. It could all be done through citizen-controlled identity and personal data without any central service. It could all be much simpler, easier and under direct citizen control. Less costly, more user friendly. Hard to see the downside really.

    I don’t think anyone expected the Gateway to be there in much the same form over 10 years after it was first created. It was meant to be a stepping stone not a destination.

    It’s time for a long overdue update in the way authentication and transaction handling happens across online government services. A better way of making that happen already exists. What is less clear is who owns making this happen. Maybe the new ICT strategy when it emerges will say when this is going to happen, and when …?


  6. Simon Freeman says:

    It always easy to look back and find issue. But you have to look at the system in the light of the technology that was around then. We can all point at the wonders of facebook and amazon etc and try and find out where we went wrong. But it was just not like that then.

    A few pointers on the Gateway R&E

    1) The issue was not a GW one but a department one. The need to get services online was clear. But there were two choices. Have each dept force you to have a user id and password owned by the depts. For each service you would have had a new credential and of course all the issues of losing those (and getting them replaced). This was deemed to be indefensible at the time and so the aim that to do business with Gov should allow you (if you wanted) to have one user id and pwd.
    2) Jerry is right. The ideal was for the private sector to pick this up and issue the credentials. They never did.
    3) The enrolment problem was nothing to do with the GW. The issue of entitlements to access personal data required you to prove your entitlement. But the department’s quality of data was so poor that they could not provide the answers to the questions for the users to answer to prove who they were. No post route was needed. It was a failing of the depts data that forced this route. The technology and user experience was in from day one to do the non post route.
    4) The 2nd dept data issue was that they could not join up citizens or businesses. They had no way of knowing the person with a SA reference was the same person in DWP with the NI no. Even when they tried to data match they found the % of errors so high that if they tried to automate then there would be a good % of people going online and getting other people’s data.

    The GW was just as you outlined. It was a way for government to start to unite a range of services and individuals through this process as they could not do it by sharing data sets or matching.

    The issue overall is that it has not moved on or adapted over the years. So less worry about the original solution and more worry as to why it was never evolved. But then look at the services any dept offers. Few are any better than the original paper form put online.

  7. Blackflame says:

    it’s a big mess. I recently signed up for self employment and this gateway is a pain. No confirmation sent, in fact I got an error message at the end of registration, so wasn’t even sure if it worked. Finally it worked after being given the run around by HMRC. So I thought.

    Now I cannot enrol services to the account as apparently the information HMRC sent me does not match the information HMRC holds. Well, what the self employment section of government holds.

    A mess, and utterly off putting to anybody wishing to set up self employed. I would have had am easier life on the dole.

  8. Francisfitz says:

    This service is a joke. A waste of government resources. Pointless in the extreme.  A total waste of time that has been dreamed up by some new freshly  out of uni jobs worth to collect brownie points and to show his or her bosses they can be just as useless as some other tea slurping desk bound twit in the civil service. Can anybody tell me of what use this “service” can be

  9. Blackflame says:

    I have now finally managed to enrol the service. Yes, not bad navigation, but there is still something wrong with regards to the details held.

    I do have a couple of questions with regards to the article. It is my understanding, if you forget your gateway ID, yes it is easy to set up another online using the same details, but it still won’t provide access to all the rnolled services since the ID| is different. Using your analogy, you can get a new key ring, but the set of keys will not be the same. You will, like in any other part of society have to re submit any details to again enrol on services would you not. Lose a key to your front door, you can get a new key, but not before you hand over proof you live there.

    Isn’t the ID system just a small layer of security, never designed to be full proof?

    As useless as I find it all and very annoying to get up and running and enrolling on services, you surely wouldn’t be able to access my stuff by setting up a new ID on gateway would you?, You would have to then enrol for the services again, requiring the details?

    It is frightening though to think, all someone would need would be the ID and password and kaboom.

    I don’t know, it has been a  frustrating process, the online team I would sack, they are essentially pointless, let us be honest. They can never deal with anything which requires some personal info be needed. Well since the whole bloody thing requires some personal info, they are null and void.

    I do like the telephone service though, to give credit where it is due. Tax office, another thing which I also think is useless these days. A number of people in a similar boat to me, went to the office to only be told you have to ring. Is there really even a point to these people.

  10. Mike Organ says:

    The Government Gateway is the most amateurish, useless, waste of money I have ever seen. I was forced to use it to change my address on my driving licence and received my ID card through the post. Next time I try to log on my password is rejected (but I am sure it was correct I am very good at keeping passwords secure and available).So I attempted to retrieve it using the built in service. What do you know the system tells me there is no such email/Id registered on the system. That’s strange as I have the original emails from the system and the Card with the ID number printed on it. To back this up I have the confirmation email they sent me which agrees with the card. But Ok so now I am told to contact the help desk but nowhere does it give me a link or any details of a help desk. A little checking I find a list of help desks but none for the DVLA.
    So what is this shit-pile of a service worth? absolutely nothing. The best thing the government can do is take it off line and imagine that it never existed because it sure is not secure and is one hell of a waste of money. But then that’s what our government is good at wasting money.
    I have now shredded my gateway card, deleted the emails and removed any reference in my records to the appalling service and hope that I never have to deal with it again. But I would love to meet the Guy/Girl who conned the government out of the millions this system cost to build just to congratulate them on a great sting.

  11. Oen90210 says:

    It’s utterly crass and infuriating. I’ve tried 3 times now and failed the 2 week process of giving up SIX pieces of information just to get to Self Assessment. That’s NI number, HMRC ref no, email address, password, User ID and then the ten day wait for the postman. SAVE TIME DO IT ON LINE. Joke.
    Every other institution from Bank to Retailer tells me not to write down any passwords, yet this lamentable phone support have told me i should keep everything written down.

  12. Derek Fey says:

    This is another rule made up by bureaucrats to make life easier for themselves.
    Apart from a number of moslems who all have the same names, they have all the info on computer.
    Why should the white indigenous population be discriminated against.

  13. Hopeless says:

    Trying to submit my tax return has been so stressful. It’s the biggest pile of crap built online – Government should be ashamed.

    I suppose it’s a great way to rack up extra cash with all the fines they rake in. All mostly due to the lie that it is an online system.

    They should be banned from saying its online. It’s not. Get a password / get a UTR code sent by horse and carriage – wait for it – get an activation code sent to your home to submit once you have accessed with your UTR code.

    Did anyone do any user testing? ANYONE?

  14. Chris Dunst says:

    It’s a relief to find I’m not the only person finding the GG incredibly frustrating.

    I’ve just spent two hours going round in circles, and I’m a web developer. What chance do less IT-literate people have?

    I’ve even gone to the effort of writing feedback based on my straightforward use-case, what went wrong for me, and offering advice on the basics of information architecture and UX. Not because I have the time, I don’t, I am just incredibly frustrated that something as fundamental as dealing with the government about taxes etc, is so painful to do.

    Alas, no contact details for the GG to send my feedback to, aarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!

  15. Claire Mackay says:

    After going round in circles trying to do my taxes online and not being able to get in to the Gateway system using my User ID I started to think hang on a minute this can’t be me. A search “reviews on using Government Gateway” brought me to your article and subsequent comments.

    I’m glad you took the time Paul to put your observations on your blog.
    Thanks for helping me understand that the User ID I have is for a DVLA issue. This system is annoying. Yes the technology wasn’t there when it was set up – it is now time for an upgrade or a complete rethinking.

    I wanted to do my taxes online, I’m just going to do them on paper. I lived in the States for some years and did those taxes online – it was a breeze. Doing taxes can be stressful for some folks, having to go through hoops to do it just adds to it.

  16. Alex says:

    completely agree, and glad I’m not the only one having problems. Its a total joke. No wonder the government has such a large deficit when the spend their money developing cr*p like this.

  17. Dionne says:

    Grrr, what a useless service. And makes me more angry as I pay tax, for this??

    They force you to register – I only wanted to renew my driving licence. They send me a stupid code, through the post – that yes, you guessed it doesn’t work.

    Ok, perhaps my password is wrong, I’ll try another, and another until I realise that it may be easier to set up a new one. Looks like it should work, they have all the right buttons – yep ‘forgotten password?’, but a totally misleading option. Takes me to another page of services (and yes mine isn’t listed). No I want a new password, so go back to the page. Try again, list of services again. Oh no I ‘m caught in a horrble trap and getting cross!

    Search site for ‘contact us’. Aha – clever you .GOV, you really don’t want us contacting you, silly me should know how to ‘self-serve’, but the system is broken, dysfunctional and a terrble customer experience. If you were not the governement and had a monopoly on certain services I would never use you again, but yep, I’m stuffed. I have to use your stupid flabby services.

    Only solution is to go back to old off-line, pedestrian channels that work, as you deal with a real person. Perhaps a good thing in these hard times, would rather secure the position of a real person, trying to make an honest living, than support a system no doubt being supported by some huge, over-priced consultancy!

    Thanks for wasting 30 mins of my life, that I’ll never get back .gov.

    The card will be cut up, and filed in the shredder. I will go back to offline thank you very much.

  18. Save time trying to file yourself and use an accountant. We can help complete the tax return for you instead of you trying to sort this out yourself and getting frustrated.

    I know I could read the manuals to fix my own car but it would take too much time and frustration even if it saved me money so I take mine to the garage and make sure it’s done properly.

  19. Victoria says:

    I registered for the government gateway two weeks ago for tax self assessment. Tried to log back in today using the user ID and password to register for VAT, but it wouldn’t work. Phoned the ‘help’desk who said that I couldn’t log back in until my activation code and unique tax payment code came through, which will take 4-6 weeks!!!

    I explained I needed to bill people in that time and provide a VAT number. They told me to phone the VAT helpline, which I did, and was told that all the lines were busy so to phone back at another time or go online. Grrrrrr.

    I was under the impression that the UK government were trying to encourage people to set up on their own to stimulate the economy. Quite frankly, this is enough to put anyone off trying.

    I’m going to take the advice of other posters and apply by post…

  20. david says:

    If it is technical and contains security and it is run by the government then stay away, what a total fxxxing joke. After not using the self assessment site for a few years I naturally havent got my user id or password. They have to mail you a user id and then you have to request a password when you receive the mail. It is ludicrous, I forgot my online banking details and was back online making transactions within minutes…the government cannot run a pissup in a brewery..oh and to request the new user id I was on the phone for 25 minutes…if i had a gun i would have blew my fuxxing brains out….rant over…

  21. kieran says:

    can someone help me,i sent off for a licence they gave me a government gateway user id and i had a password but when i sign in it says i’m not eligible for this service.can someone tell me what this means?

  22. Paul says:

    Hi there – I can’t offer any useful support through this site, as I’m nothing to do with government, but I sympathise with the difficulties you’re having. The Gateway seems remarkably good at throwing up strange errors or multiple relationships. I’m going through a similar problem with it myself, involving the Ministry of Justice.

  23. helen smith says:

    Got my ID, got my password. I’m trying to find a job via this GW……can I get pass login? Nope. Shoot me now

  24. Rod Trippier says:

    Well guys I agree, HMRC is a farce, any commercial organsation would have gone bankrupt by now.

    Tax year payment Jan 2011 I tried to pay self assessment online; HMRC said I didn’t exist, yet I had all the I.D’s etc. So being a good citizen I submitted a paper copy and paid tax up front, and received an acknowledgement. Same thing happened in 2012, so another paper copy, and another cheque.

    Yet HMRC say I haven’t submitted a return for two years and have fined me £1,200.00.

    But last week they sent me a statement (good nes I’m in credit); so dumbo if I haven’t submitted a Return how come you sent me a credit statement?

    Hey, you bumble heads in HMRC get real and stop wasting our hard earned taxes.

    See you in court!

  25. Richard Thomas says:

    Have been trying to log in to Gateway for over a week without success. Have received new Gateway id can’t remember password…Now says it can’t send me new password because I’ve recently received one???..So now impossible to log in. Help desk unable/unwilling to help. Received activation code but no info on where to enter it. Have now given up. I am an ex IT professional..A cynic might think this is being done on purpose so that when everything goes on line nobody will be able to access any services.

  26. Teresa says:

    I too cannot get in. Does anyone know when you initially log in to do self assessment whether you need a 6 digit password or do you use the 12 digit password? From memory I think the 12 digit one is used later in the process. Have tried to log in using both of these – no success! Please help me now someone! Am nervous about going thru the process of asking for a new password because which will they send me – the 6 digit one or the 12 digit one?

  27. Paul says:

    I should stress that this post has no official standing – although I’ve done various jobs that have related to the Gateway’s function, I wrote this just to give an idea of what’s actually going on. And one of those big downfalls, as you’re realising, is that support is pretty much impossible when the central Gateway, *by design*, has absolutely no idea who you are. I’m sorry it’s so awful – you’re only point of redress is with the department who actually run the transaction – i.e. HMRC for tax self-assessment and so on. I really do hope a brighter future for identity assurance is on the way.

  28. VM says:

    Its 29th January and I have had to send off for a new PIN. Not likely it will arrive before 31st. What an utterly terrible system.

  29. Peter smith says:

    Been using gg for a couple of years without a problem, doing my vat return tonight, system doesn’t recognise me, can’t get my ID as I’m not recognised and therefore no password etc.. Try to ring up and they are busy and phone goes dead, if I am lucky they might apparently send me a new user ID and password after my deadline for vat return expires and I will get a fine for being late, or as it stands nothing is recognised and I will continue to spend hours of my life trying to get through to someone to sort this mess out. I’ve missed putting my 3 year old to bed and hours shouting at the gg website in frustration, not sure what my crime is as I haven’t changed my details and have double checked them with emails and letters sent out, and with my accountant, but they aren’t accepted and I will bet a penalty. That’ll teach me! I won’t do that again, although apart from being an honest individual trying to pay my bloody tax on time I am not sure what I shouldn’t do. In short I agree with most of the comments on this site which state the obvious – gg is a pathetic embarrassment to our ailing nation, and just another kick in the nuts for its citizens who deserve better, and I am pretty sure the Germans don’t have such a crap system because they wouldn’t .

  30. SimonHarris says:

    Her is a howto for the following scenario:
    1 You have a working ID and password for HMRC (SA Online or whatever)
    2 You want to sign up for Jobsearch (which can be signed into with an EXISTING Gateway ID)
    3 You have no idea what your original Gateway ID was.
    4 Go to the Government Gateway sign up page.
    5 Enter the government Gateway.
    6 Select the link for Forgotten User ID
    7 Choose the option to reset using the service you already have access to – for example SA Online
    8 Enter your password – email – and UTR
    9 Submit – note down the first half of your GG user ID
    10 The 2nd half of the GG User ID will be emailed to you
    11 Be aware that any spaces within the GG User ID are significant. The email with the second half of the ID implies a structure of nnnn_nnnn_nnnn BUT it looks as if the user ID field is actually only 13 characters. In my case the 1st half of the user id was nnnnnn with the second half being nn_nnnn which should be concatenated to become nnnnnnnn_nnnn.

    This worked for me, and I hope it may help someone else to save some time and possibly preserve their sanity.

    Thanks to Paul Clarke for the original Blog!

  31. Phi says:

    I am sorry you all seem to be having so much trouble with this. My wife wanted a pension forecast. Registered last week and kept her password and id in a secure place. The Activation Code arrived yesterday. She logged in this morning and printed off her pension forecast – in all – took about 4 minutes from start to finish. What are you all doing wrong?

  32. Paul says:


    Yes, many services do work perfectly well as designed. And you’d generally expect to see more stories about what didn’t, because that’s what prompts people to seek help and search for posts like this one.

    But, taking your comment at face value, there are a couple of points to make in response.

    Firstly: a sign of good design is not how well a service works when it works, but how well it performs when something goes wrong. For example, because of the way the Gateway is designed, which means your identity is essentially an anonymous thing to which you attached verified relationships, if you want to go back to a central point to find out why something isn’t working, or perhaps why you’ve ended up with two Gateway identities, then you can’t. By definition, the operators of the central Gateway infrastructure have no idea who you are. That’s one example of a weakness that leads to a lot of the problem stories.

    Secondly: the effort required to make it work seems disproportionate to some people in contrast to using online services to buy and sell other things. A token sent by post? Taking four days to arrive? When I only want to carry out some transaction I don’t really want to do anyway? The fact is that government identity interaction is always going to be heavier and clunkier than general e-commerce. Why? Because the consequences of a data loss are infinitely more damaging to public trust, because often nobody cares who they sell things to, but if you’re trying to access a benefit then there’s a massive incentive to ensure you don’t hand out money to the wrong person. I could go on.

    It’s not a great piece of design; it frequently baffles its users, but I’m glad your transaction went well.

  33. Paul McGowan says:

    Received DWP identity verification activation code. I entered both password and id to enter the Gateway but cannot find from that point which webpage or service I select to actually complete the ‘activation’ of the code. Can anybody throw any light n this?? Poor webpage design!!!

  34. Mike Costello says:

    I managed to get on to the DWP site, eventually, but now I have received a letter with my “Memorable Information Activation Code” details. The letter says I ‘must’ activate this within the next 28 days but it doesn’t say where to activate it! I have gone onto the site, logged in and played around but there is just no help in how or where to activate this.
    Grateful for any advice on this


  35. Paul says:

    Shocking…Until I read the above comments I thought I might have been hallucinating whilst painstakingly navigating the gov.uk/ direct.gov/ dvla/ register here/ register there pages. Brilliant.

  36. Simon says:

    Totally agree. Government Gateway is a pile of shite. I still have not received a password from them. Everytime I phone up they say they’ll send me one but just send an ID reminder NOT a password!

  37. Neil says:

    Great article. I’m glad it’s not just me who gets frustrated by the “Government Gateway”.

  38. […] How the Government Gateway works […]

  39. Phil says:

    Absolutely Hopeless even a leaking sieve has some virtue. I like other people , registered some time ago. Lost password, asked for password. Got password 7 days later. received password. logged in.Nothing happened!phoned up, they told me my browser. had been ticked for ‘remember my password’ That, being I said, then if it remembers my password, I should be in right! “Oh no you have to reset it, not to remember passwords” “O.K” said I and unchecked the box, saying ” Remember password” and duly tried again. Nothing happened…. It reminds me of a time, that Raymond Baxter appeared on spoof ‘Tomorrows World’on the show the Goodies, when Raymond tried to demonstrate a new electrical circuit, made entirely from string!.

  40. Phil says:

    Tried Phoning again today, after no luck in logging in yesterday spent half an hour with the phone on hold all that time. No one answers, must have got through by shear luck the other day, though that had been 20 minutes. Tried to look for an address to write to on the internet, but the entire set up appears to be surreptitious.There is no address, who are they hiding from? their customers? I’d like to write a letter and strap to a snail, to see if this resolution will be any quicker! What hopeless frustrating mess! Do they prosecute me for not submitting any details, when I can’t get through….What happens?

  41. Phil says:

    Tried yet again today on the premise that even a Phuq’d clock is right at least twice a day, so I thought I would treat this a a dear diary of how completely frustratingly futile, anything run by the Government appears to be. If had registered the same commitment to my job,as the Government Gateway seems to, no doubt I’d be fired, but ho hum….Wasn’t it Churchill who said “It’s like putting yourself in bucket and lifting yourself by the bucket handle” On the phone for half an hour today.Kept on hold until eventually I was cut off….. This is the kind of organisation that the word ‘pants’is an understatement!

  42. prclarke says:

    Out of interest Phil, what service are you trying to use (I don’t mean the Gateway, I mean the end service, tax, benefits, motoring or whatever?)

    And which number are you using (and to which organisation) to try and get help?

  43. Phil says:

    Hi There
    Yes I have been given the user ID and duly downloaded my password which is yet another 12 digit alpha numeric code, all I want in life is to be able to register for corporation tax. I did manage to get through on just the one occasion, the rest of the time I’m usually cut off I had been given the 0300 200 3600 But generally I think I could possibly die of old age before I through..

  44. Phil says:

    Tried logging in for last three days now, tried putting gaps between numbers even tried the password they sent in the post, nothing happens. generally, this is what living in a vacuum must be like… Perhaps tomorrow I may spend my well earned money. Phoned the help desk which never picks up….Short of using a gas oven, I don’t think I can do much more,You can’t contact,,,,nothing there is no email system, it is devoid of life, hope, humanity. everything.At least tumbleweed moves,,,

  45. Phil says:

    Finally got through to a lone human voice today,explaining how I had attempted to log in for the past week using the Government Gateway. And guess what? I was told that it doesn’t work! Yep, it doesn’t work. The guy was really helpful and told me, not to use the Gateway service….Bot to log in through the HMRC website. I then had to reactivate and ask for a new password…But Hey It actually happened.Cannot believe it..Its just like unwrapping a turnip for Christmas. I have been barely able to contain my excitement!

  46. Helen says:

    Thanks for this very useful piece. I spent ages trying to retrieve the password for my gateway ID from DVLA and was very happy to be released from that tedious task and could start again for another government service without worrying about using the wrong one. Why don’t they just tell you that?!

    Doesn’t really do what it says on the tin now does it.

  47. Steve says:

    After my first attempt at activating an online pension account, entering the correct code three times, and being told that I had entered it incorrectly, I was told to apply for a new code. When the new code arrived I attempted once more to activate the account. Frustratingly the outcome was identical so I used a free phone number to register for my pension and get a forecast of what I might expect to receive.

    Believe me it was much more straightforward, involving clear advice, rapid feedback and even the occasional joke.

    My conclusion? The Government Gateway is a particularly inefficient and unfunny joke which is, to quote the oft used cliche, “not fit for purpose”

  48. Harry says:

    I’m just trying to renew my over-70s driving licence. What a waste of time. I have my ID but the password, the password-resetting pages, the “memorable!” questions are all completely useless. I’ll try phoning the DVLA, if I can find a phone number. Otherwise I’ll just give up on the modern age, at 75!, and try mailing the stuff.

  49. Paul says:

    It’s terrible Harry. You have my utmost sympathies. Let’s just hope that the successor system fixes these gaping holes.

  50. Mark says:

    It’s hopeless. I am sitting here with my NI number, my UTR, my activation code (courtesy of the post) and my id., my password and quite possibly I might need the inside leg measurement of my father’s cousin’s dog – but I am going round in circles. I want to GIVE them information – not take the stuff. This is intolerable. Why are my taxes supporting the development and maintenance of a system that is actually setting out to PREVENT me having a relatively easy interaction with the government I elect and for which I pay? What looney thought this bag of nonsense up?

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