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Transactions - finding the stories hidden in the data

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The transactional services list we published two weeks ago was the first time Government had attempted to gather data on all of its services together. Clifford Sheppard, Data Analyst, explains why categories were chosen to manage the data and some of the stories hidden inside.

When we began the task of gathering this data together, we did not know exactly how much data we would have, or how difficult it would be to help people make sense of it. As the list grew ever longer, we decided that it would be helpful to group the services according to their main function.

As well as helping us to manage an unwieldy list, we wanted to look across Departments for common themes and patterns. We also wanted to make sure that GDS were supporting a good range of projects. Categorisation helped us answer questions like: What was the primary purpose of most Government services? Were high-volume services more likely to be a certain type than low-volume services? Did some Departments specialise in particular service types?


Taking a sample of services, we defined the main function of each service using nine simple categories, including requesting benefits or grants, booking appointments, requesting permissions or licences, and reporting information.

We found out that:

  • about 30% of services were requesting permission or a specific licence to do something
  • another 30% involved providing or reporting information to the government - these services accounted for over two-thirds of all completed transactions
  • only 1% of services - but over 10% of transactions - involve making payments to Government

We were surprised at some of our findings. Instinctively, we had assumed that payments to Government would account for quite a lot of services, but that group covered a relatively small number of high-volume transactions.

We’ll be doing more work with categories before our next release. For example, we’re looking at categorising high-volume services by the technical components they use, such as logging in, processing payments, and postcode lookups.

What do you think? Have you done something similar with your services? We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can categorise transactional services and find more of the stories hidden in our data.

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  1. Comment by Roger White posted on

    Two points supporting the previous commenter's points that I hope current changes will resolve.

    1. Sheer inefficency. Example - I became eligible a while ago for the winter fuel payment but heard nothing about this. Eventually phoned a DWP number and the operator said 'We've written to you several times.' On asking me to confirm my address, it turned out they had an address I last lived at (wait for it) 31 years previously. Since then - surprise - I have had innumerable transactions with central government and its agencies - HMRC (every year); Passport Offfice; DVLA; NHS...,. Not one of these picked up and communicated to DWP any changes of address in that time.

    2. Transactions on the dreaded DirectGov site are *not* easy, with a clumsy and separate registration process for each type of transaction involving a written letter posted to the customer. If this continues it will kill any transformation in future no matter how good the new web site(s).

  2. Comment by Alex posted on

    Hello Cliff

    Governments are inherently complex, but certainly capable of simplifying, and this process is a great start.

    1) One example is my identity - at any one time, I might be an employee, a farmer, a Partner, a Company Director, a tax payer for PAYE, for VAT, for Corporation Tax.....

    and then at local level I might be planning, bins, Council Tax

    and yet I must do this wearing a different hat, even though I am the same "individual" for most of these transactions from my perspective.

    Governments might not like netting off transactions, or enabling me to pay by direct debit and settle with a 13th payment at year end, but it would make my life easier if I was allowed to be one person to you, the State, not > 40 or however many hats per year.

    2) Another area is Claims, Benefits and Entitlements

    One reason there are so many is that the rules that Parliament and local government passes are so difficult. Because they are so difficult, they are mainly forcing me to complete them on paper, and so transaction costs are extremely high. IT seems incapable of keeping pace with the legislators.

    I would go for simplification - avoiding duplication - information sharing etc.

    Maybe this is a 5 year business plan, with relentless focus on the individual ( or other legal entities )

    3) Requesting permissions and licences

    You might consider inviting Developers, service designers and App builders to look at this area.

    Government normally seems to revel in complexity ; most human beings prefer to live simply.

    If Government could be prepared to share the IP and future revenues from JVs that improved these business processes, you would demonstrate UK Innovation.

    You might also have businesses that could sell their products and services across the world.

    4) Categories

    I would not be technology driven here, I would suggest a user-centric approach and find out why the user must complete so much.

    What are your outcomes here ? Reduce the number of categories ; reduce the number of transactions ; digitalise more transactions ?

    More planning might happen here before pressing the research button.

    Also speak to users of these services, and HMRC staff etc.

    5) Providing or reporting information

    Is this all in the bureaucracy bucket, could it be done via open data, why is the information requested, how much is duplicated

    Is all of this information and Data so far just for central, civil government ? If so, how much more is there for local ?

    6) Simplifying tax systems

    I think Indonesia is launching a major program to do this. Perhaps it might be worth consulting how other countries are searching for simpler systems and approaches.

    7) Categorising data

    Maybe banks are the other source of information on high volume data flows and categorisation. They also started to introduce netting off, and allow individuals multiple accounts.

    I would think you could ask for research in this area from e.g. BBA

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