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Status tracking - making it easy to keep users informed

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Last month, we started discovery around status tracking and notifications. We’ve discovered a bunch of interesting (and surprising) things and are now moving into a 4-6 week alpha delivery of a government notifications platform. Our aim: making it easy to keep users informed.

The most important thing that we’ve learned is that there is huge user demand across services for notifications from government  - whether that’s a receipt, a reminder, a request for something, or an update.

Significantly, we have also decided not to continue looking into status tracking tools or platforms - at least not for now.

One hypothesis we had when we started discovery was that well timed, proactive notifications from services would remove the majority of needs for status tracking tools. Just about everything that we’ve heard and seen to date supports this.

Meet the user need without the user doing anything

This seems like an obvious thing to work towards, but in my experience it doesn't get addressed enough. It really should be the first thing we ask ourselves in service delivery.

Status tracking tools are often just ‘channel shift’ for anxiety. They solve the symptom and not the problem. They do make it more convenient for people to reduce their anxiety, but they still require them to get anxious enough to request an update in the first place. They often exist to meet the business need to reduce phone calls and contacts.

It would be much better if the service just tells the user what it clearly already knows, rather than making them call up or visit a website. Sort of ‘send, don’t publish’ (ironically).

Making it easy to keep users informed

So our focus as we turn to alpha, is around making it easy to keep users informed via notifications - namely timely updates by text message, email and, er, post.

Yep, letters. Turns out, that some people still want, or need, ‘something in writing’ and that government services still have some legislated requirements to notify people by post. So that’s a thing.

Building for the reality, not the optimal

In an ideal world, notifications would be fully automated, triggered when something is received and scanned in the post room, or when a caseworker approves something and clicks ‘save’. And, for many services, this is what will happen. But in other situations, the workflows, or back-office systems don't support this.

So we’ll also be prototyping an interface that will let back-office staff send notifications directly, without any integration to existing systems. This might be an individual text message from a caseworker or perhaps a batch of receipts uploaded in a spreadsheet that post-room staff created.

At this stage, we don’t think this platform should do much more than these things. It’s important to us that platforms do simple things really, really well.

The opportunity

So we’ve learned enough about the problems to know where to start and what not to do, which really is the point of discovery. We’ve spoken to many, many people, we’ve visited many different teams, post-rooms and train stations around the country. It’s time to get building so we can get real feedback from real people.

And what might we end up with?  Well, for a flavour of who we’re working with and what we’re exploring together (nothing committed at this stage), here’s a taster of what could be possible in the future:

  • MOT reminders emailed to all vehicle owners
  • Jobseeker’s Allowance complaints acknowledged immediately via text message
  • Student Finance documentary evidence receipts acknowledged by email or text
  • Lasting Power of Attorney updates automatically dispatched by post
  • Universal Credit (Digital) updates texted to claimants
  • Voter registration application receipts sent to people via text message
  • Driver’s Medical assessment updates emailed to drivers
  • Land Registry updates via email and text message for property conveyancers

And thank you to everyone across government for your time, hospitality, ideas, and data so far … it's much appreciated.

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  1. Comment by simonfj posted on


    Just giving this one some thought as I see where the Norwegians (and a few other govs) are up to with their "notifications". And mixed with this is Stephen's concern about trust/authentication.

    You'll be aware that many govs issue a secure digital mailbox , so citizens can be contacted by all departments. One registers with their preferred ID provider, then sets up an email box with their preferred secure mail provider.

    Then it's up to the user to keep their correct email and SMS details. Somethings which are always changing. That's one group of trusted, citizen-centric, private registers that's yet to be put in place.

    It's obviously much harder in the GOV.UK as we havn't taken this leap into a PDS for all citizens (in the same way it's done for central gov employees). And of course that's made more difficult as the most important part of this equation - the iDA - will be in be in development a while longer.

    Now that would be the beginnings of a GaaP for the rest of us, outside gov.

  2. Comment by Stephen posted on

    I hope you're also looking at and considering matters of trust/authenticity and information overload.

    If I get an email or text notification from how can I be sure that it's genuine? I know you've previously talked (either here or in another GDS blog?) about not including direct links to services and not asking for personal information in communications, but that won't stop others from trying phishing scams. What if a really important reminder ends up in the junk folder?

    And what happens when more and more services become digital by default and plan to send notifications by text or email? If people end up receiving a deluge of texts or emails reminding or informing them about one thing or another aren't they likely to just switch off, or not be able to spot the important things that need them to *do something*?

    Reminders about MOTs and renewing car tax, that their driving license or passport is about to expire, are they still registered to vote, that they haven't submitted their tax return yet. Informatives about changes or updates to benefits like Universal Credit, what their income tax personal allowance is this year or that they owe, are owed or have paid tax, that the letter they sent about [subject of interest] has been received...

    • Replies to Stephen>

      Comment by Pete Herlihy posted on

      Yes, we are looking at both of these aspects.

      We're be sharing what we learn around mitigating the phishing and spoofing risks that exist - and the potential increase in these when government communications become more frequent on different channels.

      Additionally, an important element of this platform will be design patterns around what, and when, to send notifications. Working closely with end users and teams across government (and beyond) will help ensure we get these patterns right.

  3. Comment by John Ploughman posted on

    Ofcom's Communications Market 2015 report has internet take-up at 85%, while individual mobile phone ownership/use is at 93%. Smartphones have overtaken laptops as the most popular device for getting online.

    So it actually looks like SMS is one of the better ways of reaching most users with timely updates.

    As the aim of notifications is to stop users having to track the status, being timely is vital. In the time that it's taken for the letter to arrive, the user might have experienced that anxiety Pete described, and called to check on progress.

    But quite rightly, post can't be ignored. The same Ofcom report states that:

    'Post is still viewed as a key form of communication, with 57% of adults claiming to be reliant on it.'

    In all age groups except the over 55s, people prefer to send email than a letter. So it'd be interesting to know if they prefer to receive email rather than a letter too.

  4. Comment by Andy Bold posted on

    Disregarding the regulatory requirements around certain documents, of course letters are still 'a thing'.

    ONS stats from 2013 (most recent I could find at short notice) tell us that 83% of UK adults have internet access.

    Or, in other words, almost 20% do not have access.

    Post will have to be considered a primary notification channel for some time, with digital alternatives (email, SMS, whatever) being a secondary, though often more timely, method.

    Let's file "So that's a thing" under "poorly chosen choice of words for now", but we cannot forget that services are being built as "Digital by default", not "Digital only".