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How GOV.UK Pay is making invoicing easier

A mobile held in someone's hand. On the phone there is a GOV.UK payment page. The title of the page is 'Pay a registration fee' and the invoice and total amount to pay is shown.

GOV.UK Pay is the payments platform for the public sector. We want to make it easy for anyone to pay the public sector online and over the phone. We want to make it easier and cheaper for public sector teams to take and manage payments.

In 2018 we released payment links. With these, public sector teams can set up a standalone payment page in a few minutes, without any technical knowledge, and send it to their users to take a payment.

Services can now pre-fill the amount and payment reference in the URL they share with the user. This means that services can set up one reusable payment link and then share a personalised version of the link with each paying user in an email or text message.

Payment links make it easy to take an online payment for services that aren't part of an end-to-end digital journey. For many of these services, the user was previously asked to make a payment over the phone or send in a cheque. Offline methods are around 4 times more expensive, are more manual processes, and can make it harder for some users to pay.

Payment links are used by more than 150 organisations, ranging from dropped kerb applications to surgical training courses to boatmaster licences. We've had feedback from services that it greatly improved efficiency of their operations, and they allowed teams to get services online quickly during COVID-19.

For example, instead of requiring users to call up to pay during office hours, they could now pay 24 hours a day. We also saw that users prefer to pay online when they have the option. On one Home Office service that introduced GOV.UK Pay, 75% of card payments are now made online, rather than over the phone.

What we learned

We used a mixture of data analytics and qualitative feedback to understand how payment links were being used in practice.

Some services told us they weren't sure about using payment links if users entered their own reference number. Incorrect references create manual work for finance or operational teams to match up payments to cases or applications. When we spoke to services using payment links, they said that paying users generally provided the correct reference, especially since service owners were able to add instructions on where to find the reference. But we could not guarantee that incorrect references would not get through.

We also looked at our logs and noticed service teams using payment links in ways we had not expected. We expected public sector teams to set up one payment link that lots of different paying users would use. Instead, some services were creating one payment link per paying user, and putting the reference number in the title of the payment link. One service had created more than 600 payment links like this.

It looked like a workaround to make sure that the reference number could be set by the service team so that they could be confident it was correct. Even though each payment link only takes a few minutes to set up, that is not a great use of time, it makes managing user permissions more complicated, and there are a lot of out of date payment pages still being hosted on GOV.UK.

We also researched pain points for finance teams through research interviews, surveys, and collaboration with the Government Finance Function and Government Shared Services. We found that invoicing is a problem. More than 400,000 invoices are issued each year in central government, and many cannot be paid online. Finance teams also spend a lot of time chasing overdue invoices and we thought this was in part because users had limited ways to make a payment, especially if they couldn't easily call during office hours.

We thought there was an opportunity for GOV.UK Pay to make it easier to pay invoices online, which would reduce the manual work for finance teams associated with offline payment methods and reduce the number of overdue invoices. We also needed to improve services' confidence that payments had the correct references.

What we did

Services can now use query parameters (extra information at the end of a URL) to pre-fill information when using payment links.

An email with a request to pay. The text reads 'Hi Jessica. Here is the link to make your payment. Kind regards, Gurpreet.' There is a GOV.UK payment link. The URL includes a reference and amount.

When the user opens the link, they're taken to a landing page explaining what they're paying for.

A GOV.UK Pay landing page. The title of the page is 'Pay a registration fee'. The additional description on the page is 'You will receive your registration documents within 2 weeks'. At the bottom of the page there is a button saying 'Continue'.

When the user selects 'Continue', they'll see the details that have been pre-filled by the service.

A GOV.UK Pay page. The title of the page is 'Pay a registration fee'. Underneath it says 'Check your details'. The invoice number and the total to pay is shown. At the bottom of the page there is a button saying 'Continue to payment'.

How it's working

We're currently testing pre-filled payment links with a few beta partners and will be releasing this to new and existing services in a few weeks.

HM Land Registry is sending pre-filled payment links to users who sent cheques that haven't cleared. When the payment is made, data about the transaction will go into their finance system (Oracle Fusion) and be automatically matched up to the right user.

We're hoping to see services that are currently creating dozens of payment links use this instead. We're also hoping that this makes it easier for public sector finance teams to start using GOV.UK Pay for invoices, fines, and other ad hoc payments.

If you're interested in testing this early or learning more about payment links, please get in touch with us. Public sector teams can also join our weekly demo sessions at 10AM on Tuesdays, via Google Meet or by telephone (+44 20 3957 1830 PIN: 756 965 913#).

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  1. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    Great to see progress on paying. What we found when we understood those who use the service is that, with social housing for example, there were a small percentage of people who did not pay on time. Although maybe 5-10%, the resources used to then chase up and administer the penalties far exceeded the cost of the payments service. In fact, this 10% resulted in arrears being written off, as well as evictions. And we have not even breached the subject of the wider impact on those in need; it drive them into a downward spiral of dispair and debt.
    So, when designing that service, the main focus had to be put to those who did not pay.
    The understanding gained pointed towards the start being to understand the perspective of the family and the reasons for why they did not pay. The main reasons were ofd course to do with significant issues; poverty, and causes that point to an inability to cope. They needed direct support to get them back on the rails again.
    The other reasons were low level mental health, alcohol and other drug abuse.
    And lastly, when we found out for those working in Housing. the impact of Universal Credit and how that is an online service only. The arrears made a permanent jump with there introduction of UC.
    All of this points to the necessity to take the whole service perspective into account as designers. And it points to a way of thinking like systems thinking, that assists us in avoiding the fragmentation and digitalisation of searches that have caused these problems in the first place.

    • Replies to john mortimer>

      Comment by The GDS Team posted on

      Hi John,

      We agree that we in the public sector need to look at the whole end-to-end service journey for our users. We on the GOV.UK Pay team know a lot about payments, but it’s just one part of that whole service. Each public sector team taking money will need to think about the specific needs of their users and the wider context of their service.

      We hope that we can help reduce the number of payments that fall into arrears by making it easier to Pay online - making it quicker to Pay, offering a trusted GOV.UK payment page, and allowing people to pay anytime of day rather than just during office hours over the phone. But there may well be other reasons that users have difficulty paying on time which will vary from service to service, and will need different approaches to services design - it sounds like you’re thinking about those for your services.

      The GDS Team

  2. Comment by Grant Nyenes posted on

    Very good to see that you guys have adopted References and Amounts that can be added to the URL, which will effectively remove incorrect amounts /references . We plan to fully use this in future in our cluster, possibly providing such a link in our AR invoices, and definitely in our Dunning letters. Keep up the good work!!