The deadline to apply for a Year 7 place at secondary school passed last week. This year parents applied using a website developed by the Digital First team. This new website included several innovations designed to save time and public money.
One innovation we are particularly proud of is address validation. This is incredibly important. For example, some school places depend on where a child lives, so we needed to be able to confirm their address.
The old system involved an officer looking up the child’s parent in the council tax database. When dealing with thousands of applications, this can take a lot of time and public money.
The new website takes advantage of APIs between different systems to automate this. An API is a way for one computer system to talk to another and exchange data.
Firstly, we talk to the Brighton & Hove Local Land and Property Gazetteer (LLPG) database. This is a list of every address in the area controlled by a local authority. Every address in this database has a Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). This allows us to confirm an address exists, and it’s exact location.
Secondly, we talk to the council tax database. If you pay council tax for a property in Brighton & Hove, then we know if you are resident there or not.
We know the applicant’s name and the UPRN of their address, so we check if they match our council tax records. Records are manually checked by a council officer if they don’t match.
This ensures the data we have is clean, and that school places are correctly allocated.
We estimate that this one feature alone saves a council officer around three months work.
Four weeks ago in mid-September, we released the new school application form for live applications. Its release was a milestone for Digital First. It’s the first product we’ve made that has completely replaced another.
We built it in response to feedback we were getting from customers. They were telling us that the existing application portal was hard to use. One bugbear was that you had to supply your council tax account number. The schools admissions team needed it to confirm that you live at your address. Few people know this off the top of their head, so it was definitely an inconvenience.
After working out the user needs, we sat down and made a rough prototype in an afternoon. At first, we felt it would be easy to build. But the more we developed it, the more it became clear that it was far more complicated.
To make matters worse, extra requirements emerged that were essential. This forced us to rebuild everything at a very late stage. The whole team worked flat out to hit the deadline. It went to the wire, but we pulled it off. It was a true collaborative effort to get it live.
To date, the new form has been a real success. The council receives around 8000 school applications a year. So far, over 1100 customers have made an application using the form, with no major issues reported.
We’ve received lots of positive feedback and this is unusual. Usually, the council only hears from customers when there are problems. When you don’t hear anything, it’s usually a sign that everything is working well; no news is good news. So, for people to go out of their way to provide positive feedback shows we must be doing something right.
One of the questions in the feedback form is ‘How could we improve the new website for you?’. A customer who fed back said ‘It’s already perfect’ and that a friend had recommended the form to them. When it comes to feedback, it doesn’t get any better than this. The improved form gives a significantly improved customer experience, which is exactly what we are trying to do.
There’s one thing that tops it though. Customers don’t need to tell us their council tax account number anymore. This is all done in the form which cross-checks automatically. Just this feature alone saves the service around three months of one officer’s time. It’s a win for our users and our service.
We are taking stock and looking toward the future at the moment. Digital First won’t be here forever and we need to start sharing our knowledge and embedding our learning now so that the kind of work we are doing carries on.
At one of our Product Manager meetings, we discussed some common themes causing delays, or blockers.
We decided that one very positive thing that we could do is to make a set of standards to share: what any third party system being bought should have; what APIs need to be able to do; what customer facing elements should be in any new tool.
We have already got an approved set of requirements for any new system so that it will definitely connect to My Account. So we have started, and with a positive mind and open heart will aim to continue.
However, there was no need to make our own set of standards, as the Local Digital Declaration was launched, including service standards and a technology code of practice. It was compiled by central government with lots of local authorities’ input.
The declaration is a set of guiding principles that will help support local authorities to deliver digital services and platforms that meet the needs of citizens and describes what organisations can do to achieve this. It covers all the common themes that we discussed, which are outlined below along with the relevant part of the declaration in italics:
1 There is a lack of ownership of some decisions. It can be really hard to get anyone to say that the decision is definitively theirs. This happens in all sorts of scenarios when trying to get sign off on product decisions.
The declaration commits co-signatories to “make sure that digital expertise is central to our decision-making and that all technology decisions are approved by the appropriate person or committee. This will ensure that we are using our collective purchasing power to stimulate a speedy move towards change.”
2 There are cross-cutting service elements we need that are either missing or still in the process of being put in place. These can be tools or platforms that allow us to share data, allow customers to tell us once, that modernise how we pay and invoice, or how we book appointments. So we will get quite far with discovery or innovation and then all get blocked by the same kind of elements.
3 Sometimes a different support team develops separately and implements change at the same time as we are already working with a service, meaning staff disengage from our work and our ability to deliver is impacted. Some strands within the organisation are not joined up enough.
The declaration commits leaders, service members, board managers and politicians to “support our workforce to share ideas and engage in communities of practice by providing the space and time for this to happen.”
4 Teams don’t always know about the cross cutting work to create a single system, for example, to ensure standardised data gathering and customer single sign on. If they buy separate products it can severely impact the plans to develop one system and the data that we will get out if it. They would have no idea of this impact and we need to fix this. We need to get that knowledge out there.
Procurement has moved on and we need to catch up with that. We don’t need to buy just one big system anymore. It is possible to buy enough to start and then add on elements that are required, if the right basic system is bought in the first place. We need to share our knowledge about how to do this with the right people.
The declaration commits technology teams and leaders “Where appropriate every new IT solution procured must operate according to the technology code of practice, putting us in control of our service data, using open standards where they exist and contributing to their creation where they don’t.”
In this case it was our team who benefited. Rather than can create our own set of standards, we now need to spread the word about the Local Digital Declaration and adopt its framework and principles. Then everyone can benefit.