Taking the Department for Education digital
Laurence Rugg, digital solutions manager for the Department for Education, discusses the challenges the department faced in moving its services online and how they were overcome
It has been well publicised that as from April 2014, all digital services from the government must meet the new Digital by Default Service Standard (DbDSS), to ensure clarity of content and create a benchmark for usability. As part of the government's digital strategy to improve and maximise its online offering, over 300 agencies and bodies will ultimately have to migrate from their individual domains to GOV.UK. Ultimately this will enable customers to access government information and services via a single site.
The Department for Education (DfE) recognised that, in order to become more digital by default, we would need to concentrate on the quality and execution of online forms, which historically were very basic in nature, as well as the domain through which they were presented. This presented us with the challenge of having to build up to 100 forms whilst also creating an environment that would sit within the main government website - Gov.UK. In practice, users visit Gov.UK for very specific purposes, requiring us to strip away content that may distract from or delay this process.
At the heart of the issue was the fact that many of the services we provide required users to download, print, complete and return forms and documents with supporting information - all offline. This was time consuming for our end-users, requiring them to provide information in writing that we probably already held on file, making the process laborious and unnecessarily complex. As a result, a lot of resources were being invested in gathering information on paper that was already stored elsewhere digitally as well as matching paper forms with these records.
It was important to us that we not only challenged the existing offline steps and processes and embrace the opportunities that doing things digitally allows us, but also by restructuring processes boost efficiency and reduce admin costs.
As a result, the DfE vigorously evaluated solutions from several vendors to ensure we implemented a functional and efficient digital service. The process led to us selecting Firmstep's AchieveForms platform based on the customisation possible with its solutions, and their ease of use which would enable the Department to take the development of its Gov.UK portal and forms in-house. This led to us deploying AchieveForms and its Self Suite to automate many of our forms to integrate with Gov.UK.
Using the form element we have enhanced our user experience and improved departmental efficiency. For instance, schools can now apply for academy status through a custom-built form that eliminates the need for users to manually key in basic information for their school, such as address and contact details. Users simply enter their school's Unique Reference Number (URN) and the form automatically and securely accesses data from EduBase, the DfE's register of educational establishments in England and Wales, to populate the relevant form fields.
The form can also automatically link to and retrieve data from other DfE systems, such as performance tables and Ofsted ratings. As well as speeding up the application process and minimising administrative handling, this ensures all submissions are validated and contain accurate, relevant data for rapid processing.
To support this, the forms login facility does not require mandatory user-registration by default, but has the ability to alter registration requirements depending on activity. For example, with processes such as complaints, account registration is not necessary. Users simply complete and submit the relevant form. In contrast, for processes such as academy conversion application, where applicant identity has to be verified or the form may be more complex in nature, the DfE has been able to implement mandatory account registration.
Following the initial success with the forms that are currently live, we are now planning to re-build and develop over 100 forms, each of which will benefit from enhanced functionality and automation.
The platform has completely changed the way we offer our services and engage with users. The feedback from users and internal stakeholders has been very positive: not only does it meet user needs, it's driving business efficiencies and really changing the way that the department deals with applications and correspondence from our customers.