Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was working as part of a team to create a brand new digital service for separated parents to apply for help arranging Child Maintenance. We’d launched a private beta of the digital service in December 2019, and were working towards introducing more users on a gradual basis.
Previous to this, the only way to apply for help arranging Child Maintenance had been a completely telephone-based service. However, as a department we knew that we had to provide a digital option as part of our commitment to expand our services and create digital designs based on our users’ needs.
The push to go online
All was going as planned until the pandemic hit. Almost instantly, our colleagues in the contact centres could no longer answer the phones and process applications. The department was working to get people set up to work from home, but a lot of colleagues were redeployed to work on other services. So, our directors made the decision to make our digital service the main method of application from that point onwards, and for the foreseeable future.
The team had to move fast to secure the service and make it available to all applicants. The plan had been to ramp up to around 100 applications a day going through the system within a few months, but now we had to get to this stage in a matter of days. The team worked hard to stabilise the service so it could cope with the increase in users, all while adjusting to working from home themselves.
Creating a 24/7 service
At the private beta stage we were using feedback from users to progress the service – as we opened it up further this feedback became even more important. There was a clear need for a few changes such as 24/7 availability. The service was initially designed to only be available when the legacy backend system was available, between 8am to 8pm during the week, and not on weekends.
We had a lot of feedback asking why it was not available after 8pm, so we built our own backend to store the application data temporarily, until the legacy system became available. Around 20% of users now complete their applications in that ‘offline’ time period, which shows the benefits of reacting really quickly and taking user feedback on board.
Another piece of feedback we received from users related to them wanting to confirm receipt of their application. So, as part of our regular iterations, we delivered a feature that allows users to sign up for an email confirmation that their application has been received using the Gov.Notify system. Around 99% of online users have chosen to use this facility, which just shows how useful it has been as reassurance for people applying for Child Maintenance.
The hard work pays off
Throughout the summer and into autumn, the team worked constantly to introduce new features, with changes deployed on an almost weekly basis. It was a relentless pace and was challenging at times – for example for those of us home schooling our children. Having a shared goal of helping to get money to families that need it was a really motivating factor during these times.
That hard work meant that we were able to take the product through a Government Digital Service (GDS) public beta assessment in winter. It passed with flying colours, which was a really proud moment for all of us involved in the project. We were also recently recognised with a team award at an internal awards ceremony, which was a nice way to celebrate the way we’ve worked together.
So far, over 59,000 people have used the digital service to apply for Child Maintenance, which is around 80% of all applicants. The telephony service is still there for those that need it, but the number of online applications continues to grow.
This isn’t the end of the digital journey for this service either. We’re now progressing a new roadmap for further transformation of the end-to-end service, and we’ll continue to listen to user needs, and make amendments and improvements to make it as easy as possible for people to apply for and manage their Child Maintenance arrangements.
It’s certainly been a challenging year for all of us, but I’m glad that I’ll be able to look back at when our team rose to the challenge and delivered for people when they needed us most.
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