Not quite public

That old question came up recently: What really good online service experiences has government ever given us?

As usual, the first (and, sadly, often the last) answer: the online tax disc service. There’s no doubt it’s a properly good use of the online channel to save people hours of queueing and paper fiddling. It achieves its magic not with any fancy visual design–its interface isn’t that great (those five questions up front–why, just why?). And it still stubbornly refuses to update its strapline from one that was phased out several years ago. (Did you notice? No, of course not. Straplines are irrelevant.)

What matters are two bits of genius: one, the removal of any burdensome personal identification at the front end. No Government Gateway, no personal identifiers. Just a reference number that you type straight off the paper form that’s sent to you when its due. That’s it. If you have that number, and you have the means to pay, a tax disc will soon be on its way. Whoever you are. It’s about the car, not you.

The second miracle is the joining up of databases at the back-end. The car’s registration is used to call on MOT and insurance databases (information from completely different sectors, let alone organisations) to save you digging out slips of paper and doing all that queueing only to find out that one of them is a little bit out of date. Don’t underestimate how valuable that service join-up is.

But this post is not about tax discs. It’s about another online service, also from DVLAVOSA [updated: the MOT scheme is run by another Dept Transport agency, VOSA], that far fewer people know about.

And it’s not to illustrate a service point, for a change, it’s to explore an information point.

The MOT.

The evil cousin of the tax disc. It doesn’t display its expiry date for the world to see on your windscreen. Well, it does if you choose to fill in the little sticker that you get with your MOT pass certificate. But that depends on your choice. And nobody is going to punish you if you don’t do it, or if the little sticky peels off and gets lost. So we know what that means.

When’s your car’s MOT due? Yes, you! Do you know? Without finding the last certificate, which, let me guess, isn’t about your person or your desk as you read this.

You could find out online, you know. There’s a nifty little utility here. And what do you need to get access to that magic expiry date? Well, you need the registration number of your vehicle, naturally. Which you probably know.

And you need a reference number from your last test certificate (or failure notice).

Really. No, I’m not joking.

Ok, I’m exaggerating a little: if you don’t have the test certificate to hand, there is a fallback. You can use the number on your blue V5 form. The one that we oldsters still call “the logbook”. Now, let me take a wild guess as to where your logbook is kept? Any possibility it might be in the same drawer as your… You’re there already aren’t you? Give yourself a quick kick on the inside of your shins, DVLAVOSA service designers.

So we have a potentially brilliant online service, that, if promoted, could stop tens of thousands (my guess) of people slipping past their MOT expiry dates without realising. The only time they think of these things is in idle hours at their desks at work, while the documents they need languish in a dusty study drawer at home.

And what would make the service brilliant? Just making it usable on the basis of the registration number alone. Which would mean that anyone could look up anyone else’s MOT expiry status. (The crowd suck through their teeth…is that, I mean is that, ok?)

And is it?

The point (which I have finally got to) is that MOT status information is a curious dataset. It’s not quite private (well, it’s barely “protected” to any appreciable extent), and it’s definitely not public. Instead we’ve built a little friction around accessing it (needing to drag out a hard-to-find bit of paper rather than an easy-to-find remembered–or seen in the street–fact).

Does it feel like personal data to you? Would it bother you if your nosy neighbour could look up your missed test date and start leaving little passive-aggressive notes on your windscreen? Or should it be a public data set? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear and all that. And the bloody tax disc expiry date is printed loud and clear for all in the street to see, isn’t it? What’s the difference?

The only risks I can think of that are headed off by this rigmarole are the nosy neighbour one, or possibly a local garage touting for business on the basis they’ve spotted your car is coming up for a test soon, or a miserable Lazy Wail underling sitting in a grey basement tapping in slebs’ car registrations in the hope of getting a pathetic non-story.

That’s not a lot, is it? Am I missing something? Is that the entirety of the reason why we are denied an incredibly easy-to-implement online tool which would save us real time and real money?

Over to you. And over to you, DVLAVOSA, if you’re reading. Which I hope you are.

I’ll revisit this concept of quasi-public data soon. Things that aren’t quite public, aren’t quite private, and may well be personal. Things like the electoral roll, for example :)