The Environment Agency isues more than a million licences each year, ranging in scope from simple fishing permits to highly complex licences for industrial purposes. The principle, however, is the same. "E-licensing" is poised to cut through the regulatory red tape.
Coupled with the public's growing demand for greater access to information, this has set government an enormous challenge, requiring a fundamental change of culture and practice. New, technology-driven methods of accessing basic services are already emerging, such as the NHS Direct telephone helpline, and it is clear that such services are proving both popular and cost-effective.
There are many thousands of licences in force throughout the country, varying hugely in complexity and volume. However, virtually all licences require the same basic core of information, such as name, address and type. Historically, many systems have been developed independently to process each licence type within a department. The drive towards improved customer management, however, means that call centre staff and those who work with licences need to know about multiple licence holders across different media. In addition, the current method of processing these licences can also be time-consuming and costly for those being regulated, as organisations are required to seek or renew many separate licences each year on a case-by-case basis. In certain industries, for example those considered to have greater environmental impact, companies may hold hundreds of licences for individual activities and locations.
Licensing has also become a vital tool for managing assets, including finite resources such as clean air, drinkable water and uncongested roads. "The ultimate purpose of a discharge licence, for example, is to provide clean water", explains Neil Pallister, senior consultant at CMG.
"To control the asset, the regulator needs to know the volume and the frequency. Ultimately, the damage and risk involved can be minimised and shared, and integrated information networks would allow much closer management and enforcement."
CMG conducted extensive research into how government requirements, demands for freedom of information and newly emerged technology standards could be made to work together to help streamline the regulation management process. It became apparent that the vast majority of licences are of medium complexity and volume and it is these that might best benefit from a generic system.
The research also determined that all licences follow the same basic life cycle: application, assessment, determination, approval/ rejection, issue, monitoring, enforcement and management.
CMG then joined forces with the Environment Agency to conduct a joint research study of its approach to licensing. The Agency is responsible for the protection and improvement of air, land and water resources across England and Wales, with 26 area offices and around 10,000 staff. It issues over a million of licences each year, ranging from simple rod fishing permits to very complex licences for industrial processes.
"Regulation management is clearly a cornerstone in the future of e-government", believes Paul Arrigoni, CIS development services manager with the Environment Agency. "The single point of information such a system could provide across many departments and organisations could have significant benefits to the holistic management of risks and resources."
Many underlying factors needed to be addressed to give the system the necessary flexibility and robustness. "Some of our actual licences may only consist of a single page certificate, the supporting documentation can run to many pages," he explains. "An integrated system needs to allow our regulations officers to consider unique factors such as location, other licences already held by the samecompany and the duration."
Despite the wide variation in the content and purpose of each licence, CMG was able to devise a fixed formula it termed the 'Five-Box Rule', based on a common set of five variables. The proposition was tested against two Environment Agency licences - the Waste Management Site Licence and its Water Abstraction Licence - differing significantly in complexity and processing and monitoring methods. "The Waste Management Licence has strict, fixed parameters defining how, where and when a waste disposal site can safely operate," says Arrigoni. "On the other hand, the terms of a Water Abstraction Licence can vary depending on where else water is being removed from the source, overall water table levels and the need to manage it as a limited resource on an ongoing basis."
Based on the research carried out, when extended across the organisation, CMG's proposition could potentially handle around 80% of Environment Agency licences, while the remaining 20% would require a more detailed form of manual input.
A core system was designed using component-based architecture (CBA), capable of handling the features present in virtually all licences while allowing tailored modules to be added as required to increase functionality and ensure a better match with specific business processes. The e-licensing concept also has the potential for use by independent watchdog bodies, such as OFWAT, which sit between regulator and regulated, and large regulated organisations which would benefit from instant, more dynamic information about their licence status.
E-licensing enables the online issuing, receipt, processing and monitoring of licence applications, which can be delivered via the internet, digital TV or mobile phones using WAP technology. CMG's 'assisted application' process walks applicants through the licence and guides them according to their responses.
Clearly, the benefits of an e-licensing system become greater the more widely it is adopted. In the near future, as smartcard technology becomes more established, a secure application and payment could be made through a terminal and the issued 'e-permit' contained digitally on the card itself, creating an entirely electronic process.