In November 2010 I decided that while I was on maternity leave for six months I would keep a note of each interaction I had with public service. I would actively try to engage with all levels of government and other areas of public service, such as the NHS, digitally where possible. This is what I found.

During the six months I made a note of 10 attempts at digital transactions, nine of which were with county or district councils and the other one was with the NHS. The two times I needed to deal with central government I had no option but to do it offline (which raises some interesting questions in mind about alpha.gov.uk).

Not all my attempts were successful and in every case I could think of a way it could have been improved but I’m that sort of person.

Before I jump into the detail a disclaimer; when I’m not having a baby I do work full time for the county council covering the area in which I live meaning I have a higher level of knowledge not only of their digital capabilities but also which services they cover and which are dealt with by another tier of government. Most people don’t have this knowledge, heck, most people don’t know there are different tiers of government. So my little project is really a heuristic evaluation, a report researched and created by an expert in the field of digital government and won’t be representative of the issues an average Joe or Jane might have trying to do this stuff. The heuristic is simple: can I do this?

Secondly, there were a couple of other contacts with the county council for which I work but these came up because of the fact I am both a citizen wanting the council to work for me and an employee working for the council. I haven’t included them but they do highlight again how difficult organisation’s and individuals are finding it to reconcile their personal and professional identities online.

CitizenSarah

  1. Apply for a primary school place via the county council. As I’d written the content for the pages surrounding this application before going on leave I was probably pretty knowledgeable about what was needed and what I could expect. I’d never looked at the actually application though and I was pleasantly surprised to complete sign up, log in and details within 15 minutes. Equally when it came to offer day in May all the hassle was taken out because I received an email with my results. I wouldn’t consider doing this transaction through another channel in the future if the process can be kept this simple or made even easier (there were a few process points which seemed to be more for the benefit of the organisation than me as an applicant).
  2. Request new recycling boxes via the district council. Our boxes blew away in a storm so we needed new ones. This site was a maze and I finally found a likely looking page through the A-Z but it could do with a ‘get new boxes’ link in here and on other relevant pages. Eventually found an online form but this was broken, as was the link to report something broken. Opted to send an email to a general enquiries address and this was answered promptly and out new boxes arrived the next day. The speedy response and delivery somewhat dispersed my initial annoyance. If they fixed what was broken and made it easier to find it would be an excellent process.
  3. Apply to join the library via the county council. There’s been lots in the news about libraries closing and while this isn’t happening in my area at the moment it did spur me to try and get myself and my son signed up as members. Six months later I still haven’t done it and this is mainly because I can’t do it online and there is no clear guidance about what I’d need to do it in person. I feel really disappointed, mainly with them although my own laziness plays a part – it’s just a lot easier to spend money with Amazon than it is to deal with my local libraries. I couldn’t find the right page, it was a PDF form that didn’t display properly, I didn’t know whether it was the same form to sign my four-year-old up. It just seemed that they hadn’t thought about the digital process at all and their offline process wasn’t all that before they threw it online. I think they’re missing a trick, and they’ve certainly missed out on two new members for the time being.
  4. A request from the county council to use my pictures. An odd one as the council actually contacted me to ask if they could use some pictures of county hall from my Flickr photostream in an internal report. I had no idea the policy unit were sourcing information in this way and so it became a funny personal / professional interaction whereby as CitizenSarah I answered the enquiry and with my work hat back on I told them to get in touch with my team. Interesting to see my organisation thinking this way.
  5. Childcare search via the county council. Oh, childcare search, how you hurt my heart. This wasn’t the first time I’d attempted to use the childcare search but once again it fell over, threw a nasty looking server error and became unavailable for a while. When I did get it to work the results didn’t match the filters I’d set and the precis of each result was meaningless. Made worse by the fact that when I finally managed to contact one of the childminders she’d asked the council to update her details five months previously and they still hadn’t. I don’t have another way to find a local childminder and this is one of the most frustrating futile online transactions I’ve ever had to make, exacerbated by the fact I have to keep trying as it’s the only way.
  6. Gritting and winter service information via the county council. Disappointing lack of information and no way of getting it as it was needed over a weekend when the call centre was shut and the Twitter account wasn’t manned. The mapping system wouldn’t work at all on my computer and so I just found what I could from the local media instead.
  7. Local election results via the district council. I actually wanted the results of our parish election and had to find out through Twitter that these would be handled by my district council. I then had to find out when I could expect them from the personal blog of a candidate as the information was totally missing from the district site. When it did come in it was easier enough to read although the table layout didn’t work very well on my phone at all. Most people are pretty disengaged with democracy at this level anyway but making the information this hard to get at isn’t going to improve the situation.
  8. Report a problem with the pavement via the county council. I already knew where the form was and it’s easy to complete with non-essential information being optional. Seems like they’ve started to think about what information they want versus what information they need to make the process as simple for citizens as possible.
  9. Report graffiti via the district council. By far my most Victor Meldrew moment as I decide to report the graffiti on a local playground. I don’t mind graffiti which has an artistic element but the marker pen scrawl of sexual innuendo when my child is learning to read was a bit too much. Went round in a few circles to report – county council pointed me to police who pointed me to my district who didn’t have a working online form. I’ve sent an email to the general enquiries address, buoyed by the success with the recycling boxes, but I never had a response and the graffiti is still there. This contact seemed to completely fail and I’m disappointed not to at least have had an acknowledgment.
  10. Countryside site information via a county council. The information from my own county council has let me down in the past so I hopped over to a neighbouring authority and found some decent info pretty quickly. While the info was good, although didn’t render to mobile perfectly, the let down was the mapping – I’d say an essential part of countryside site information. The map was OS and fixed view. It didn’t help me at all. They had supplied a postcode for the car park so I used this with Google Maps to sort myself out. Why they can’t do this (and by ‘they’ I mean pretty much any council) is still a mystery to me.

11 and 12. These were the two offline transactions I had to have with central government. One was to update my child benefit after the birth of my baby requiring a paper form to be completed and sent off with his birth certificate and the other was to re-tax a car removing a SORN notification which I did at a post office. I’m pretty sure both these processes could be improved. The child benefit one is harder, for sure, as it requires proof of identity documentation but the SORN removal could surely be closer to the marvel that is the online car tax renewal system?

An honourary mention too for my local PCT through who I needed to book a hospital appointment after referral from my GP. Supplied with a reference number and a web address I was able to sign in, choose an appointment from a selection available and confirm the booking online within 15 minutes. A letter came in the post to confirm my selection and provide details of the clinic. This was brilliant – it made me feel in control of something pretty scary and confident in the NHS. A perfect example of channel shift.

So there it is. Six months in the life of this citizen. I’ve come out of it quite disappointed with how poor most online information is and frustrated in attempts to complete digitally because processes just don’t support it. There needs to be a massive change. I don’t think alpha.gov.uk will do it – not because what they’ve showcased so far isn’t great but because however shiny you make the front end if your back office system or process is flawed then it will fail. I don’t think public sector organisations are thinking like this yet, they are still thinking that if they get something, anything, online a magical web monkey will do the rest.

It has been a worthwhile exercise for me personally though. It got me thinking about digital local gov from a citizen perspective – something I always try to do but a refresher in having to do was helpful. I’ll be heading back into active public service with a renewed sense of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, and many questions about how the heck we get there. What I feel now is that for services to be provided satisfactorily online will take more than just the digital team – they can likely supply you with a great online interaction and some shiny but if the process you’re trying to put online is flawed, well, it’s all just lipstick on a pig isn’t it?

Anyway, for now, this is CitizenSarah signing off, powering up and heading back to active public service.

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