The work carried out by the Land Registry represents one of the Government’s longest running e-projects and while it might not have hit the headlines in the same way as the Revenue On-Line Service, its achievements exemplify the potential of the electronic age.
The much-hyped nirvana of e-business was the paperless office, but it is a concept that takes on a whole new meaning in a building that houses land ownership documents that date back to 1892.
At present, these paper documents are being transformed into electronic records. An incredible 12,000 new pages are being made available over the internet every day as part of the registry’s Electronic Access Service (EAS).
“The challenge is that there are 130 years of information,” says Michael Treacy, corporate services manager, “which amounts to scanning and indexing around 6.4 million pages that must be moved from paper and made relevant for today.”
The conversion process began in 2002 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2004. Inevitably, such a specialist undertaking required a lengthy procurement process. The contract for the job was gradually whittled down from 80 enquiries to 14 concrete expressions of interest to a final shortlist of bids. It was eventually awarded to a consortium headed up by EDS Ireland in September 2001.
The company assumed overall responsibility for the project, which included the supply, integration and implementation of the software as well as the ongoing, scanning and indexing of the paper records. Making up the consortium was Cendris, which was charged with actual scanning, a task it had performed successfully at land registry offices in the UK.
Other partners were IXOS Software AG that supplied the underlying imaging and storage software and Hewlett-Packard with its hardware.
The technology and paperless records are working examples of dotcom principles that were bandied around a couple of years ago. The same could be said of the fundamental business model. The Land Registry’s customer base, the people who use the EAS, are professional bodies that makes it a prime example of B2B (business-to-business) transactions.
That, however, is where the similarities with dotcom fever abruptly end. Treacy and the team are seasoned professionals with the huge and unglamorous task of dragging an ancient practice into the modern world. This means taking their customers with them, the legal practitioners, professional law searching firms, financial institutions, local authorities and other public bodies that regularly use the Land Registry.
Getting the message across and promoting the benefits of online records has been essential and the office has organised over 30 seminars reaching in excess of 1,000 people. The payback has been good. Since EAS was launched in July 1999 the number of customers has grown steadily and now exceeds 4,000.
Having paid €125 to open an account, customers have password access that enables them to conduct online searches, view and print computerised ownership records, see pending applications against a specific property, prepare and submit applications for registration/lodgement forms, apply online for records and track the progress of an application.
The growth of usage is a testament to the success of the registry in promoting its services. In January, for example, there was an average of 672 business transactions per day, a figure that had risen to 1,200 by September. The office estimates that 600,000 fee-paying transactions will have been conducted online since the service was launched.
“Much of this growth can be attributed to the increasing amount of records that are available online,” explains Treacy, “and the figures don’t even include the many thousands of monthly online enquires that are free.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Treacy and the team are already looking at expanding their client base. “At the moment, it is a business application rather than something for the general public, but we want to be there for them as well.”
Citizens are entitled to sign up for the service, but public access will only really make sense when online transactions are in place, introducing a pay-as-you-go service that would suit individuals looking for ‘once-off’ documentation. Key to this is the arrival of the Reach e-broker project, which will deliver a centralised secure payment system to government departments including the Land Registry.
There is no doubting the quality of expertise that is being employed and the Land Registry’s commitment to its corner of e-government. More importantly, when you look at what it delivers, you can understand why such a massive undertaking has been worthwhile. In the old world of paper documentation, it could take 30 to 40 weeks to get hold of specific folios. Online, it takes minutes. Is there a better example of the efficiencies that the electronic age can bring to government?