For the UK’s millions of disabled parking “blue badge” holders, the process had remained unchanged since the 1960s.
The cardboard permits that lay on dashboards, applied for every year via handwritten paper forms, were a throwback to a time not just before the internet, but before many notions of data security or best practice. Costing the taxpayer £46m a year in estimated fraud alone – it’s not difficult to steal and alter a piece of card – and a further £20m in manual administration charges, the blue badge was in serious need of technological intervention. But in order to change the system, the Department for Transport (DfT) and technology provider Northgate Information Solutions would have to overcome a number of major challenges.
Joining the DfT in 2009, Sharon Pierson (pictured, third from left), an improvement-service project manager, was dismayed to discover “a solution proposed that I was supposed to deliver”.
“But I took one look at it,” says Pierson, “and said ‘Well, that isn’t going to work’. I took it to our developmental security officer, he went pale and we just went 'No'. So we went back to the drawing board.”
Talking to service users and revisiting European Union recommendations on physical badge requirements, and the service required for users to get them, Pierson began looking around for providers who could deliver the technology required to get the project off the ground. Very soon, she was in contact with Sue Holloway, services strategy director at Northgate.
While members from the two teams quickly developed a close and energetic working rapport, it was also necessary to get local authorities – who would be administering the new badges – into the loop.
The government of the time was still offering generous funding for a revamped blue badge, but a general election and talk of austerity loomed. Northgate led funding talks with local authorities, which could provide a vital safety net should a change of government mean a change of priorities.
In the meantime, a new badge, which included passport-style hologram technology, carefully positioned information to stop data being read through a car windscreen, and various chemical treatments to stop the plastic card melting on dashboards (as prototypes had been known to do), was being developed.
At the same time, Northgate brought its experience – it already worked with 90 per cent of local authorities in the UK – and proprietary software to work in creating a unified, entirely electronic application system across the UK.
“It was very disparate how they were doing it,” says Holloway. “CRM, social care applications, spreadsheets, even paper.” All had to be cleared away, and made digital.
For the DfT, it was an opportunity to level the playing field for applicants. “We could make sure people had access to it no matter where they were in the country,” says Pierson, “because it had been a bit of a postcode lottery in terms of how applications got dealt with.”