The UK's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has put into a practice a plan to modernise and simplify the process for requesting EU CAP subsidies. To do this, Defra has implemented a dedicated online web portal.
The new digital service to implement the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in England aims to streamline the process for requesting CAP subsidies; make it more convenient, making travelling to public administration premises unnecessary; cut paperwork; and decrease the number of defective requests.
However the plan faces many issues, not the least of which is the fact that farmers and landowners in the UK in general belong to a generation that is not particularly familiar with new technologies. Moving away from the traditional paper-based system to an online system often leads to another layer of complexity for these users, that of the medium itself.
The implementation, started in 2012, was scheduled to go into production after March 2015, having completed a final public beta phase. However, technical complications have made it necessary to postpone the production of the system. The system will become operative in time for the 2016 campaign.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the agricultural policy of the European Union. It implements a system of agricultural subsidies and other programmes. The successive changes in the EU and growing complexity in the policies and rules for applying for the subsidies have led to a rise in the number of fines ("disallowances") to British farmers since 2005.
The Rural Payment portal intends to implement the new CAP schemes and reduce the number of errors made by farmers, thus incrementing the number of subsidies actually paid to entitled recipients.
The three Statutory Instruments that support the implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) schemes that came into force on 1 January 2015 and the portal implements are:
- Common Agricultural Policy (Competent Authority and Coordinating Body) Regulations 2014 sets out who is responsible within the UK for ensuring the administration of the CAP meets EU regulatory requirements.
- Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment and Support Schemes (England) Regulations 2014 sets out how certain options for direct payments to farmers will be applied in England.
- Common Agricultural Policy (Control and Enforcement, Cross- Compliance, Scrutiny of Transactions and Appeals) Regulations 2014 sets out how the CAP will be administered and enforced.
Description of target users and groups
Target users are mainly farmers and landowners that may receive EU CAP subsidies, and also land agents in charge of managing farmers' and landowners' relations with Public Administration.
Description of the way to implement the initiative
The reworking of the CAP application process into a digital service has been carried out over the past 2 years by first discussing the proposals with English farmers, environmental groups, rural communities, non-governmental organisations and other interested parties.
Defra sought their ideas for how the new regulations could be implemented in England in ways that were as simple, affordable and effective as possible. This led to the project being designated as "exemplar", one of the 25 major services to be made digital by default within the UK's Transformation Programme, i.e., a project that will serve as a template for future projects within the programme.
In the first stage of the project, the Discovery Phase, interested parties were consulted and data that would allow the platform to be built was culled. This phase was completed in September 2012.
In the second stage, started in November 2012 and finished in January 2013, an alpha prototype of the platform was developed and an alpha map viewer, one of the major features of the platform, was developed between April and November 2013.
The prototype was then opened as private beta for selected customers in July 2014. After several iterations, re-factorings and improvements, the beta was made public in February 2015.
The final production version of the platform was expected to go live shortly after March 2015, but scalability problems that led to very slow responses and crashes postponed the official launch of the application until 2016.
Due to the looming deadline for farmers to present their claims, Defra has had to activate plan B, which entails going back to using paper forms for this year's grants.
The Claim Rural Payments portal is a web-based platform that intends to allow farmers, landowners and land agents to register the details of their properties, file claims for CAP subsidies and easily modify data pertaining to their properties in a controlled environment that, as opposed to the prior analogue, paper-based process, diminishes the chance of error and, therefore, of disallowances for entitled farmers.
One of the key functionalities of the service is its interactive mapping feature, which allows users to visually include or modify features on their properties. Users can add bodies of water, such as ponds; show how hedges have moved or been extended (an important environmental feature); or add paths and gates.
Main results, benefits and impacts
The Claim Rural Payments portal is expected to reduce the number of improperly filed applications for CAP subsidies that lead to disallowances. Erroneous applications have accounted for approximately £600m in unpaid subsidies since 2005. Of 110,000 farmers and 1,200 land agents, the service has currently registered 75,000 users, that is, 72.9% of potential users.
The new service also brings together systems and processes currently managed by four organisations, Defra, Rural Payments Agency, Forestry Commission and Natural England, under one umbrella service, simplifying the process for applicants.
Although the service facilitates and regularises the process through which farmers apply for subsidies, it is still not deemed a simple process. The portal was given 8 out of 10 on the Digital Inclusion Scale, which means that using it requires the customer to be a "confident" IT user. Confident users are not expected to have any problems when using new technologies and exploring online services.
Unfortunately this is not representative of a large number of British farmers. The average age of farmers in the UK is quite high, with many in their 60s and 70s, and a significant number have limited digital literacy. However the creators of the portal believe that by building services that meet the needs of most users, they are creating a simpler, clearer and faster service, and hope to have the time and financial flexibility to offer case-by-case support for edge case users.
Problems with lack of bandwidth in rural areas are also an issue when accessing the platform. Defra claimed last year that 1Mbps would be enough to process mapping, but it is now clear that at least twice as much is needed to process land-based changes without any severe delays or problems. If the UK's public administration wants to push forward with its "Digital by Default" policies, it seems that infrastructure in remote locations will also have to be improved.
The portal has also proven to be prone to crashing under heavy traffic, when many users try to update data at the same time. So much so that farmer associations recommend not trying to access the site at peak hours, for example, in the middle of the day. To avoid denial of service problems due to heavy loads, Defra will have to invest in more servers and a larger bandwidth to accommodate their traffic for 2016.
For the current campaign of 2015, Defra has had to backtrack on its plans of an all-digital recollection of claims and go back to issuing paper forms to claimants. The all-digital solution is expected to be ready for the 2016 campaign.
Users who have tried the system complain that the use of codes to identify crops complicates the use of the mapping tool. According to users, the helpline often does not provide much of the information they need to fill in the map correctly. The distribution amongst users of better documentation or changing the code-based system in favour of the names for the crops would solve this problem.