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At least €2 million ploughed into PSC / driving licence project - before Shane Ross pulled the plug because it wasn't legal

The Road Safety Authority had scrambled to get its house in order for the PSC introduction, only for the initiative to be dropped suddenly and at the last minute in March of this year.

psc The Public Services Card

THE ROAD SAFETY AUTHORITY came under intense pressure from civil servants to make the Public Services Card a mandatory prerequisite regarding applications for driving licences, and had spent €2 million on that project before the plug was unceremoniously pulled by Transport Minister Shane Ross over concerns that using the card in such a manner would be illegal.

It has emerged that the RSA officially announced its intention to make having a PSC a mandatory requirement for obtaining a driving licence in February of this year (with a deadline of 9 April), despite the fact its executive had grave concerns over the authority’s ability to deliver that service adequately.

It is now also clear that senior RSA officials repeatedly questioned the Department of Transport, the authority’s parent body and the main driver behind the project, as to whether or not using the card as the only means to obtain a licence would in fact be legal, and were reassured that was indeed the case by the most senior civil servant in the department.

Regardless, just under two weeks after the RSA first announced the migration, on 9 March 2018, the authority was instructed by the Minister for Transport Shane Ross not to continue with its plans due to uncertainty concerning the project’s legality.

All told the RSA spent roughly €2 million on the attempted migration, including on the heaviest application of radio advertisements in the authority’s history – a campaign designed to have the new process of applying for a licence heard by 85% of the nation’s population at least 10 times by the time it concluded its three-week run.

Freedom of Information

The legal basis for the Public Services Card (PSC) has been the subject of persistent, intense speculation ever since it was announced that the government would seek to expand the card’s remit from welfare services alone to other State functions such as driving licences in May 2017.

RSA correspondence released to TheJournal.ie under freedom of information shows that the authority came under sustained pressure from Transport to meet two deadlines at the time the PSC/driving licence project first became public knowledge on 19 February – to have it mandatory that a PSC be required for those applying for a driving licence by 9 April, and that an online renewal option be made available to those renewing a licence via MyGovID (the state’s  online equivalent of the PSC).

From 26 February onwards, the RSA’s concerns regarding the task it had been set were made clear. On that date, its board was briefed as to issues surrounding the migration, with the matter said to be at “the highest risk rating”. In fact, as early as 26 January, RSA CEO Moyagh Murdock had expressed “genuine concerns” to Transport “that the process by which a licence customer either acquires a PSC or registers the PSC with MyGovID is not as intuitive or as straightforward as it should be”.

0145 Independence Alliance_90526146 Minister for Transport Shane Ross Source: RollingNews.ie

The main issues concerning the authority at that time were the fact that just 49% of people due to renew their licence in the following six months actually had a PSC, while just 3% of those holding PSCs further registered (an online process whereby an individual verifies their address) for MyGovID.

Given the sometimes protracted nature of the PSC application process, which could last anything from days to weeks, the authority was worried it would not be able to cope with urgent demand for licences (given someone would have to hold a PSC first), a concern that it raised many times with the department.

All told, the National Driving Licence Service (NDLS) processed over 600,000 applications for licences last year.

Legal basis

The released documents reveal that concerns regarding the PSC’s legal standing were expressed by the RSA as far back as March of 2017, when it was assured by Transport that it was government policy that the PSC become the mandatory precondition for applying for a new licence or a renewal.

On foot of those concerns, the secretary general at the Department of Transport Graham Doyle wrote to Murdock on 12 October 2017 to assure her that, so far as Transport was concerned, the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 was sufficient legal basis for the sharing of citizens’ data between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP, the department primarily responsible for the PSC) and the RSA, and therefore that it would be fully lawful to proceed with the plan to expand the card to driver licensing services.

On 9 March 2018, Minister for Transport Shane Ross dropped the bombshell on Murdock, via his officials, that the plan could not proceed as projected due to the fact specific legislation would have to be drafted in order for it to do so, a position taken following consultation with the office of the Attorney General. It’s not clear what exactly prompted Ross to make this decision. However, the question as to the legal basis for the card being used in such a manner had been put to the RSA repeatedly by advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland in the aftermath of the 19 February announcement.

ROAD SAFETY 808_90519684 RSA CEO Moyagh Murdock Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The shock news was delivered to Murdock a half hour after she had demanded of Transport to know what was going on with the project, given the RSA was at “a point of no return” regarding its commitment to the migration.

“I have also been advised (verbally) by the AGO (Attorney General’s Office) that you should give consideration to ‘pulling’ your recently launched advertisement campaign re the use of the card and that delivery of the required legislation to permit online applications by 30 April is now seriously in doubt,” a Transport official responded.

The sheer suddenness of what happened here is demonstrated by the fact that a mere three hours earlier an RSA official had drafted a set of regulations, to be actioned by Ross, to give effect to the new licence application process.

Transport officials subsequently made it clear to the RSA that as far as the department was concerned, in reducing the PSC from being a mandatory requirement to merely an optional one, the need to pass such regulations could be averted.

Screenshot 2018-05-12 at 23.35.38 Email from Moyagh Murdock to a Department of Transport official on 9 March 2018 pleading for clarity as to what was happening with the PSC Source: RSA

Click here to view a larger image

9 March 2018 was certainly a headline date in this particular debacle – later still that day, in the wake of the news emanating from Ross’s office, the RSA drafted an internal memo to sum up all that would need to be done as a result of the minister having pulled the plug.

“Formal response needed from DTTAS (the Department of Transport, Tourism, and Sport),” that note reads. “Clarity on whether legality of MyGovID, data sharing with DEASP, ability to require PSC in NDLS are all in doubt.”

Digital campaign to be paused, radio campaign to be paused, all banners and popups to be pulled.

The memo also mentions that “costs (may be) incurred on comms (communications) that are now sunk”. In the end, the news that the PSC migration would not be happening was not made public until nearly three weeks later, on 27 March.

Under pressure

The amount of pressure placed on the RSA to meet the go-live deadline of April 2018 regarding the PSC project is outlined time and again in the released documents.

Consistently, the authority is informed that the government’s 2017 egovernment strategy, and a government decision dating from September 2013, are the reasons why it was being compelled to adapt the PSC.

In the aftermath of Ross’s unexpected decision to halt the project, frazzled RSA officials reached out to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), the body responsible for the overall PSC expansion from its DEASP origins, in an attempt to find the clarity that Transport had yet to provide.

This move was not met with approval by Transport. “We are significantly surprised and disappointed that a direct approach has been made to DPER in this matter by the RSA, without any discussion regarding such intentions with this department beforehand,” an official told Murdock on 13 March.

In response to this, Murdock responded that, as early as April 2016, a Transport official had made clear to her that as far as reforming the licence application system went, “the PSC was the only show in town”. As the days passed in March 2018, the RSA CEO continued to remind DTTAS of its historical insistence that the RSA had to get on board with the PSC.

Indeed, the emphasis placed on the need to use the PSC in as wide-ranging a manner as possible was repeatedly stressed to the RSA by the department. In February 2017, the same Transport official who had described the PSC as the only show in town had warned the RSA “that moving to SAFE (Standard Authentication Framework Environment – the PSC’s government-mandated identification standard) for RSA services was imperative or otherwise there was a need to show why this was not feasible”.

6 A sample Irish driving licence

“He said this is government policy and that he is under pressure both internally in DTTAS and in broader civil service areas to get traction on SAFE implementation,” a memo from that time, highlighted by Murdock, reads.

He implied that the reputation of the RSA was suffering (in public service circles) because we have not SAFE in place as regards the driver licensing service.

The indication is firmly given that PSC compliance would be something the RSA would have to deal with, whether it wished to do so or not.

Such indications are in stark contrast to a letter sent to Murdock on 22 March 2018 by secretary general Doyle, in which he stressed: “I would draw your attention to what is said in the egovernment strategy. It provides that online services should be the ‘preferred option’ in delivery of State services, but does not state that this is the only option.”

This letter came in response to one written by Murdock on 14 March, the same day it was confirmed for her (though still not officially) that Ross’s decision “to change the policy” regarding the PSC was a final one.

In Murdock’s letter, she pointed out that Doyle himself had written to chairperson of the RSA Liz O’Donnell in March 2017 reprimanding the authority for its perceived slowness in actioning the PSC project.

She said that “a new communications campaign for the public reversing the advice already issued” would have to be prepared, and stated that “the reputation of and public confidence in the RSA will be damaged”.

Screenshot 2018-05-12 at 23.39.06 A Department of Transport official informed the RSA in February 2017 that the authority's reputation was 'suffering' as a result of its perceived lack of progress on the PSC driver licensing project Source: RSA

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Replying to Murdock’s assertion that the Comptroller and Auditor General would “have to be informed” due to the RSA having “invested considerable funds (circa €2 million) in IT and communications, some of which we will now have to write off”, Doyle said:

“This is no more than the standard requirements for any such spending under public financial procedures.”

FAQs

On 26 March, the day before the climbdown regarding the PSC became official, the RSA drafted a series of frequently asked questions for its officials in order to deal with queries regarding the issue.

From that list, it seems clear the authority was well aware that the optics of forging ahead with a high-profile campaign while that project stood on shaky ground legally were less than stellar.

Screenshot 2018-05-12 at 23.30.31 The RSA FAQs drafted on 26 March 2018 Source: RSA

Click here to view a larger image

“The RSA does not have certainty that the necessary legal backing is in place to make it a requirement for those applying for a driving licence,” one answer reads.

“How could you press ahead with this project if the necessary legal backing was not in place?” reads another question.

“These work streams are sometimes progressed against different timelines given various priorities,” is the recommended answer to that query.

Other questions included:

  • Why did it take so long for this to become apparent especially when you had started your high-profile campaign to advise customers?
  • Who originally told you that there was a legal basis to do this?
  • Why is this legal advice changing now?
  • Were you given assurances by the Department of Transport before now that there was a legal basis for this? And who gave it to you?

“This is a matter for the department,” is the answer to that last question.

One final query was drafted, one for which no firm answer appeared to be in place.

“How much money has the RSA wasted on this project?” it read.

A more important question may be why was that money wasted. Whether or not the Department of Transport has an adequate answer to that query is another matter.

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