Four things we’ve learned about government payments platforms

Photo of the Scottish Government building in Leith
The Scottish Government building in Leith

For the past 5 months, we’ve been working with the Scottish Government, helping a small team there explore ways to improve how the government makes and receives payments. The team recently published a blog post explaining their work, which is part of a broader programme of digital reform.

The obvious first question to ask is: why not just use GOV.UK Pay? It’s possible that it will be part of the eventual approach, but leaping straight to an answer is rarely a good idea without doing some research first, both with users and about what’s going on elsewhere. Scotland’s scope for looking at payments is wider than the UK’s platform; they’re looking at money flowing both ways, inbound and out. The government is also a younger, smaller set of institutions, with many different versions of the future ahead of it. It has different factors to consider – particularly the opportunities that come from the introduction of new powers in areas such as social security. With a relatively blank sheet of paper to work from, Scotland has a chance to build on code and learnings not just from the work of the Government Digital Service, but a lot of other places too.

One of our favourite things about working with the team is their drive to learn from what’s worked, and what hasn’t, from other governments around the world. We’ve been helping them learn about how similar teams elsewhere have approached similar problems. These include the PagoPA team in Italy, the National Government Service Centre in Sweden, and the teams behind Finland’s new OmaVero online tax platform, Portugal’s Public Administration Payments Platform, and valuable discovery work undertaken in Nova Scotia.

Our investigations included understanding how and where those teams started, their business cases, their service design, supplier partnerships and ways of working. We also asked teams how they had iterated and scaled their services over time. We looked at a variety of examples, some very successful and others less so.

We found that interest in common payment services is growing: over 20 governments are delivering them in some form. (Our research covered Israel, Nova Scotia, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Taiwan, Norway, Kenya, Queensland, Peru, Portugal, Ecuador, Australia, Colombia, Ghana, the Philippines, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Romania, France and the UK.)

There were 4 themes that emerged from the research:

1) The right economic argument for platforms depends on the country’s ‘institutional legacy’

Older, more complicated governments tend to argue for common payments on the grounds of efficiency and taking out cost. Younger, more developing governments tend to argue for common platforms because they allow cheaper, safer expansion of the state’s services.

2) No country has tried to launch a fully comprehensive payment service in one go

Different jurisdictions have opted to prioritise different payment services (most often payments in or public sector payroll) and user groups (businesses / government / citizens). The one consistency is that no government has attempted all the main use cases simultaneously, on the grounds that it is too risky.

3) Common services fail painfully if they have planned for a fixed cost and time, rather than building towards an outcome

Among common payment services that haven’t worked, governance is the most common problem. In particular, when services have been under pressure to have a fixed ‘big bang’ launch to many users, the results tend to be very costly and poor for users.

4) Mandating the use of common services across government is not the only lever for adoption, the user experience is important too

Most jurisdictions have introduced some form of rule enforcing use of a common payment service when it is available, either in law or as internal guidelines. The evidence suggests that this is probably necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve adoption. Ultimately, common services are used when they are designed to be easily deployed by teams in government, and provide a high quality user experience to citizens and businesses.

We also introduced the payments team in Scotland to their counterparts in digital and ICT agencies in five other governments. Of course it’s important to capture learnings from people who’ve done it already. But we believe it’s equally valuable for digital teams to develop their own peer networks, so they can continue to share their experiences over time.

The team in Scotland are continuing to put together the business case ahead of making some decisions in the summer. We’re excited to see how their work will develop. You can follow the team’s progress on their blog, and on Twitter by searching #SGPayments.

And if you’d like to learn more about our work on government payments platforms, you can drop us a line.

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