Delivering end-to-end digital services – Doing Digital in Bristol pt. 3

So I’ve blogged about our digital infrastructure and about our changed approach to delivery, introducing agile methods. The third part of the story is what we’ve produced.

When I first thought of blogging about this we had one digital service in development – Apply for Residents Parking Permits – for a single zone. As it’s taken me so long to write the last two posts, we now have two more digital services built and live on the new infrastructure, and a few more in the pipeline for early 2015. Apply for an Older Persons Bus Pass and Renewals for three month Residents Parking Permits both went live in December 2014. (True, Renew is just another iteration of Apply, but it’s great to see that we can follow the agile approach of delivering a slice of value, and then adding another in a future iteration, with each scoped around a specific set of user needs and stories.) On top of this, we rolled out Apply for Residents Parking to a new zone in the first week of January 2015.

So how is our Apply for Residents Parking Permits digital service constructed?

We started with user needs – going out into the streets and open spaces of Bristol and asking people how they would expect to experience finding out about and applying for a residents parking permit. We also spoke to people in existing residents parking zones to understand their experiences. These perspectives gave us several key insights:

  • People wanted clear and personalised information, where could they park their car, how much would it cost them for their combination of cars and permits, what would happen next?
  • People were very happy to apply online and comfortable with the idea of signing up for a digital citizens account as long as it wasn’t too hard to do.
  • The idea of virtual permits was of interest to some people (the DVLA had just announced that paper tax discs were disappearing) but most people wanted to be able to see a physical permit – as evidence that people parking in their street had the right to do so, and also because they just don’t quite trust the council yet, and wanted to be sure we wouldn’t fine them, in the absence of a physical sign they had paid.

We also had an inside-out business need to address – the expansion of residents parking zones from 5 to 15 in 2015 would be impossible without an automated process. Previous zones had been rolled out with a paper application form, required physical evidence to be provided for proof of residency and vehicle ownership, and payments were not effectively integrated across physical and digital channels. We knew that the team processing applications would have to balloon to over 25 people if they were to have a chance of coping, and given that the council was going through a restructure that involved cutting around 800 posts, this wasn’t going to happen. In any case, so much of the current process involved ‘waste’ in the lean thinking sense – effort to resolve errors introduced by the clunky paper process, effort to answer questions from people when they chased us because their permits didn’t arrive quickly, effort to translate data between physical and digital formats.

So from both angles it was clear where we needed to focus.

  • The information we provided when someone landed on the digital services ‘lead-in’ page had to be clear and tailored to them.
  • As they stepped through the transaction, we needed to give them the relevant detailed information at each stage, again specifically tailored to their circumstances (e.g. vehicle emissions class, whether they had a private drive/garage, how many permits their address had already)
  • Calculations and eligibility checks needed to be done automatically, without requiring physical evidence unless absolutely necessary.
  • Each step needed clear and unambiguous confirmation that it had been successful, building trust and confidence, culminating in a really strong “that’s it, all done” message at the end.
  • Follow up confirmations via email with a timescale for delivery of permits would also help to reassure applicants.

So that’s what we’ve built. Working with our UX and digital development suppliers we have designed and constructed a service, using OpenAM to create a citizen ID and provide authentication; Liferay to host Spring MVC forms that use a clean and clear GOV.UK style theme; web services from Experian to provide the vehicle and identity checks, integrated with our systems via a Tibco ESB; and as the case management backend and repository for the master customer record.

Residents Parking High Level Solution Architecture

This combination of digitising evidence checking, automating calculations and business rules, and removing delays due to errors and posting paper have reduced the process duration from an average of 10 days down to just a few.

It’s not perfect of course – being the product of an agile/iterative development method we’ve delivered a minimum viable product, and that shows in a number of ways:

  • The scope is limited to residents and visitors permits, and doesn’t cover businesses or a variety of more complex types. The business rules for these types are more complicated and we don’t want to get them wrong by rushing them out.
  • The verification of identity and vehicle ownership have an error rate that we’d like to reduce – not everyone is known to Experian to the level of confidence we’d like to match; if the check fails you have to drop out of the digital process and complete the paper form. We are watching with interest as Warwickshire works with GDS on using the VERIFY scheme and especially attribute exchange, as we’d like to use these services in future to match directly against government data sources.
  • Some of the UI designs couldn’t be perfectly translated into the Liferay theme in the version of the product we have installed – we chose to live with this constraint on design for now, knowing that improvements are due to the base product and its handling of front end code. The user experience of the new digital service is so much better than the paper form, or many of our older web forms, that we felt confident in making this choice.

As I said earlier, since the initial launch of Apply for Residents Parking, we have built on the same digital services infrastructure to deliver Apply for an Older Persons Bus Pass – reusing the basic forms and Liferay theme, the core address lookup and citizen account creation/authentication services, and creating a secure content upload service, in this case to enable people to upload their photo for the bus pass, but this give us another reusable service that future projects will use when evidence of any kind needs to be uploaded.

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