The rural payments digital service that was developed for farmers to make claims for new EU subsidies was withdrawn earlier this month and replaced by paper forms, after performance problems made the system unusable. Computer Weekly was approached by a reader – an experienced software executive – who helped his father, a farmer, try to make claims using the digital service. This is their view of the experience. Names have been withheld on request to maintain anonymity.
Farmers have a customer reference number issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Some services associate the number with an email address. To gain access to the rural payments website my father attempted to negotiate that a password for the website would be sent to his email address.
The website allows for that process to be conducted, but in common with a number of Gov.uk sites nowadays, the process is rather convoluted. A password reset link is sent to the email address and must then be used within a certain time period to create a password, which must then be used to log in within another set time period.
To confuse things further, the website frequently asks the user to check their inbox then follow online instructions when, in reality, the email may not arrive for more than an hour after it was requested.
The end result was that my father was not initially able to gain access to the site. Moreover, in the process he spent more than two hours on the Defra helpline which is an 0300 number, and was subsequently charged more than £20 through his phone bill. Eventually he sought my assistance.
After two hours negotiating with the website and a further call to the helpline, he was able to complete the setup process and gain entry to the website. The operators on the Defra helpline implied that many users were having similar issues.
Once logged in, the website displays some welcome messages, identifying itself as a beta service (see image below).
It then allows the user to view details of the business. It displays an interactive map showing the property divided into coloured sections. Each section corresponds to an entry on an associated list which displays the usage details of the land section.
Read more about the problems with the rural payment service
- MPs have slammed the government’s decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a “digital by default” service
- Secretary of state Liz Truss, revealed that system performance issues were the cause of the problems
- The government was forced into a U-turn as one of its flagship “digital by default” services – for payments to farmers – had to resort to paper forms
Populating land usage
The list was initially populated with usage details from the previous, paper-based version of the system. However, each entry was tagged as “awaiting revision” or something similar. When you choose to edit an entry, it is necessary to state exactly how large the land section is to four decimal places and to specify its usage from a very long drop-down list.
Interestingly, the website won’t accept the pre-populated answers for usage type and size – it rejects them and forces the user to re-enter the information.
More worryingly, the pre-entered usage types don’t appear on the dropdown list for selection, so a different type must be selected. It took me around an hour to figure out how to complete the first usage entry. There is no online help and no description of the usage types – that requires a call to the helpline mentioned earlier.
Changing mapping entries
Associated with each piece of land usage is a small map which can be edited. In the case where the size of the land section is specified incorrectly, you have to edit the map entry. Here’s where the fun really starts.
The mapping tool appears to be an interactive widget. The user clicks on the map to create a single point and a line connects that point to the previous one. It’s a little like the free-format shape drawing function in PowerPoint.
I found the mapping tool baffling. I can’t imagine it’s within the capability of many members of the farming community
Unfortunately, it seems to be full of bugs – there is no reliable logic to the function of each mouse click and it’s very difficult to complete any individual section of drawing. Even now I could not say what the function is of each click, double click, drag etc. It requires a great deal of trial and error to complete a section.
I found the mapping tool baffling. I can’t imagine it is within the capability of many members of the farming community to use it.
Number of map and usage entries
My father’s farm is relatively small but had around 20 entries for differing land uses. Some of the entries are detailed down to the size of a garden or pathway. A large agricultural property with lots of land sections could easily have 100 different entries to edit and map. My guess is that would take several days to complete which correlates with the comments I’ve heard in the farming media.
My overall feeling about the website is there are two key issues:
- The website is too complex for most farmers to use;
- The website is extremely buggy and should not have been issued in beta form.
The use of a beta version may be appropriate for an incremental change to Google Maps, for example, but it clearly is not appropriate when launching a complex new service which has the capacity to waste an estimated 10 million hours of farmers’ time .