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Home Office develops Online Application Service for visas with Equal Experts

The Home Office explains how its implementation of the Online Application Service for visas bagged it the 2015 Computer Weekly European User Award for Best Public Sector Project

Many government departments have been undergoing digital transformation over the past year, and the Home Office is no exception.

The department’s transformation team has been working on the Immigration Platform Technologies programme to develop digital immigration services. These include the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) Online Application Service for visas and the Immigration Identity Assurance System, which aims to create a unified view of a single user’s transactions.

The Home Office partnered with Equal Experts to develop the UKVI Online Application Service, which is a digital system that allows the public to apply for all visa and immigration services related to the UK.

Shifting the legacy

The department hopes the service will become the main route to apply for visas or immigration services in the UK, and is one of 25 government exemplars undergoing digital transformation to make them easier and faster to use.

Originally, the Home Office had a paper-based system for internal UK work extension applications and several different online services, including the Visa4UK online service for those from outside the UK applying for a UK visa.

“The paper forms required the applicant to decide which parts to fill out and what supporting documents to send. This can unsettle some applicants as they may feel that if they don’t fill the form in correctly their application will be rejected,” says a Home Office representative.

“Making applications via a paper form isn’t the way in which many services are accessed today. The Home Office is committed to simplifying access to its services, in line with the Government Digital Service [GDS] strategy of digital by default.”

Since immigration policy can be very complex, any system used by the Home Office must adhere to the rules in place, which are also constantly changing.

This made it difficult for members of the public to understand which service or paper-based form was appropriate to them, making the process confusing and time-consuming, which in turn made it difficult for case workers to collect the right information needed to kick-off the appropriate processes.

Software firm Equal Experts deployed a blended team where consultants, civil servants, suppliers and contractors from both Equal Experts and the Home Office were mixed together.

“The new Online Application Service is dynamic, so that as the applicant answers questions, subsequent questions are dynamically added and removed as appropriate,” explains the representative.

“A list of the documents the applicant needs to provide is built up, resulting in a checklist telling the applicant which documents to provide. This gives greater reassurance to the applicant, and should result in a reduction in the amount of time spent processing supporting documentation, as only required documents are supplied.”

Adapting to an agile approach

Digital adoption often requires a more agile approach to working, and the Home Office was keen to adopt this methodology. This has allowed the system to be iterated and updated as new functionality and rules need to be applied.

“The organisation was fairly new to agile and iterative processes, being more familiar with waterfall methodology and large infrequent releases,” says the Home Office representative. “There was a culture change within the Home Office to understand the benefit of following an agile approach with frequent releases, fast pace and a quick approval process.”

The team moved to a model where it is determined how the project can deliver maximum value as early as possible. 

A minimum viable product (MVP) – a small piece of functionality that will still deliver a business benefit that once completed can be improved on – is defined and developed, and extra features and improvements are then added, with business releases developed every six to eight weeks. Bug fixes or updates are made on a fortnightly basis. The process was a “change of mindset” for the Home Office, the department admits.

Digital by default

The project focused on user needs from the alpha testing stage. It begun by creating test profiles to build up an end-to-end view of the user’s journey throughout the whole visa application process, through HTML prototypes of the system.

This allowed the Home Office and customers to give feedback on usability and what would be required of the system from a usability perspective, as well as a law and policy perspective, when using Gov.uk for users inside and outside of the UK.

But with 10% of adults across the UK still unable to use digital services, departments need to take careful consideration when adopting a digital by default approach.

The current audience for the project applies to users in the UK who hope to extend work visas for them and their dependents, known as Tier 2, and those in China applying for a visit visa for the purpose of tourism and short work trips, with the digital capabilities of both groups being considered during the process.

The representative says: “Ensuring an assisted digital route is available, wherever relevant, is part of the project’s responsibility as it is critical all members of the public that need to access the service are able to.”

The representative adds that applicants who are extending a Tier 2 work visa will require a sponsor for the process that will be able to provide assistance with an application if the applicant cannot complete it themselves, and applicants in China often have the assistance of a travel agent.

Read more about digital by default

  • MPs have slammed the government’s decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a 'digital by default' service
  • Is the Government Digital Service spending its £50m budget for 'assisted digital' in the right way?

Stretching across the globe

Once user requirements had been collected, the beta stage focused on developing a product catalogue to make it clearer to applicants both inside and outside of the UK what is available when applying for a UK visa.

Weekly releases of these products are provided from a back-end, cloud-based infrastructure, which hosts the new web-based services while still being able to connect to the secure government legacy infrastructure.

The first release of the online visa applications beta service for China was released in June 2014, and has had more than 80,000 visa applications. The full service was approved by GDS and officially launched in March 2015.

For both types of available online application, case workers now have more easily accessible information when trying to kick-start the visa process, and applications now take four minutes less than they did before the digital system was put in place.

The original paper form required transcription, but as the online form is directly integrated into the case working system, the information synchronisation is now automatic.

There are now also fewer requests for help from applicants overseas, and fees are calculated and paid online as opposed to the previous manual process.

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