GOV.UK Notify in Action

This blog is about our experience using GOV.UK Notify. GOV.UK Notify is a service maintained by the Government Digital Service (GDS) which allows central government, local authorities and the NHS to send emails, text messages and letters to users.

Over the last few months, we have been building a tool which integrates GOV.UK Notify with our Manage Arrears system to communicate with Tenants and Leaseholders who owe the Council money. It has been an interesting experience which has exposed our team to the benefits GOV.UK Notify has to offer as well as how to overcome some of its limitations.

What does GOV.UK Notify do?

  • Send free emails
  • Sends up to 25,000 free SMS
  • Anyone can create for letters, emails and SMS using their templates – a technical expert isn’t required!
  • It sends both individual and bulk SMS, emails and letters
  • The Notify API integrates with web applications or back-office system to send and record communication
  • Organisations can incorporate their own Logo headers into the communications
  • It is a secure and reliable service

What were the challenges we faced?

  • GOV.UK Notify only holds sent SMS, emails and letters for 7 days – we needed to find a way to extract, save and make the data accessible to the service users for a longer period.
  • The letter templates were slightly restrictive – meaning users have to be creative when designing letters
  • GOV.UK Notify only handles addresses in the UK

Overcoming some of these challenges

Our developers found a way to overcome these challenges by using GOV.UK Notify’s precompiled letter feature instead of the standard template facility. This meant that our letters created before they got to GOV.UK Notify instead of within GOV.UK Notify. This allowed us to;
– Format and create letters without restrictions
– Save letters in our own system
– Retrieve letters
Due to the small percentage of International address in our database, we decided to handle these manually and GOV.UK Notify has included it on their roadmap.

Why we like GOV.UK Notify?

  • GOV.UK Notify has allowed our project team to think outside of the box and be the first service in Hackney Council to incorporate the ability for letters to be sent via GOV.UK Notify and to be saved and retrieved safely at any point in time. This is extremely important in arrears management for audit purposes.
  • Using GOV.UK Notify eliminates a lot of manual steps and costs incurred by some teams who manually mail merging 1000s of letters. These costs and steps include; Stationery costs (Paper, Envelopes, Ink), Postage costs Officer time (Going to the printer, waiting for the printer, enveloping and letters)
  • The cost of sending 1 double-sided letter via GOV.UK Notify is only 30p. This includes the 3 points above which the officers no longer need to do or pay. Not including officer time and stationery costs, this is already a saving of 27% (based 2nd class postage)
  • Integrating our Manage Arrears system with GOV.UK Notify has allowed users to send individual and bulk SMS messages. They like this because:

* The action is quick and simple
*The data is up-to-date and relevant
*The integration allows the content to be automatically written back to the Manage arrears system
*There is no cost for up to 25,000 messages

  • GOV.UK Notify records the status of letters, enabling users to track each stage of a letter from the point it is received, to be printed, and posted
  • GOV.UK Notify has a clear dashboard – making it a breeze to obtain statistics
  • Gov Notify’s customer service is Awesome. The team are very quick to respond and very knowledgeable

By sharing our experience I hope this helps you think about how you might also take advantage of this great tool. If you have any questions or would like a demo feel free to contacts me.

When HackIT met the venture capitalists

I’m participating in a programme to explore the concept of responsible leadership – simply, helping people and their organisations make decisions which take account of the interests of all stakeholders. One of the ways the programme does this is by connecting you to people and environments that are unlike your own.

I had a conversation with the partner of a venture capital firm exploring what might a local authority IT team (us) learn from the way that they analyse investment opportunities? And what might our thinking help them understand the diversity of the needs and abilities of people they don’t normally meet.

On Thursday, five of our projects presented to a panel of people from Hambro Perks, a venture capital firm that specialises in growing technology businesses – including brands that we’re familiar with – Laundrapp and What Three Words.

We chose projects that represented larger and smaller investments for us, and products that were already achieving a return on investment and those that were early prototypes. Each team explained the problem to be solved, their vision, the current stage of development, what was already available on the market and what investment they needed next and what they’d seek to achieve with it. They were then subject to (the nicest) challenging questions about the market, the strengths and weaknesses of the product and the potential roadmap.

Across the five presentations, there were some key themes that we need to consider:

  • Are we really understanding and solving problems, or are we just improving existing services? We need to do both. But it’s easy to start with a problem / opportunity and then rapidly find yourself iterating to a point that’s an improvement on today but doesn’t make a
  • Have we understood our users well enough – in particular, using quantitative as well as qualitative techniques to understand the size of the ‘addressable market’, likely digital uptake and how we support digitally excluded people.
  • Do we understand the ‘competitor set’ well enough? This matters in terms of other software that already performs a task but also entrepreneurs, social enterprises, charities who are trying to solve the same problem. Discoveries don’t typically begin with analysis of think tank reports, but perhaps some should.
  • How are we marketing the product or service? We’ve had some tangible benefits of ‘organic’ uptake of some of our products and for others, we’ve got a captive audience. But our marketing ideas could do with further work.

All of these are questions of responsible leadership: do we understand our context, situation and system well-enough to know whether we’re doing the right things in the right way.

The teams found the exercise sufficiently useful that we’re now experimenting with how we might re-create it to inform the way that we initiate new projects. Our next Dragon’s Den event will be in mid-June.  It will be important not to create governance processes that work in parallel to our existing forums, but it was sufficiently worthwhile to give it a go.

Importantly for me, the exercise gave me a real energy boost. I felt significant pride in hearing Andrew; Soraya and Guy; Philippa and Richard; Rashmi, Selwyn and Mirela; Daro and Anna present confidently and clearly about our work, handle the challenge well and to see that our work stood-up to external scrutiny.

Pondering a pivot

The contract for our corporate website is drawing to a close so we thought it would be a good opportunity to see what other Content Management Services are on the market. We particularly wanted to focus on headless or decoupled CMSs that can push content to digital products beyond the Web. This will help our residents to find information through their preferred channel.

Having emerged from this process, we want to share our thoughts on choosing, using and perhaps losing a content management system.

A comparison piece by an external agency looked at a field of 23 contenders and came out recommending the headless CMS ‘Contentful’. We validated this decision when the Re-Engineering Hackney Content project started and, many postits later, we stood by that recommendation. It was a very close-run race at the time but Contentful just nudged past WordPress by a nose. Contentful appeared quick to build new components and features, had a low learning curve for developers, was extendable and high-performing and was easy to maintain and deploy.

As with any trial, however, the more you experiment, the more you learn. And, in our case, we’re learning it may not be the product for us.

First up, we have found the out-the-box functionality to be more limited that we’d expect from a live product. Some of the initial user stories we’d pulled together to spec the CMS are not being met that easily. For example, we’ve had to custom-code iFrames, the rich text editor is in beta and loses formatting on copy and paste, filtering draft from published pages has needed a workaround, we’ve hacked the description field to categorise pages and assets. This is functionality we’d prefer designed-in but we’re having to think outside-the-box to create it. This takes time. And we’re becoming less confident of being able to meet more complicated functions down the road.

We have found solace in the Contentful community and those developers have proved a valuable source of knowledge. They have been able to answer our questions where the official support route has sometimes not.

We aren’t taking this decision lightly but, if we are to pivot, now’s the time to do it. One of the benefits of Agile methodology is that there is no loss of face in changing tack once you learn more. Well, there’s some; we’re only human.

Where next? One of the benefits of a headless CMS is we can get out quick and take our styles and content with us. We’re trialling a .org instance of WordPress and estimate we’ll be back up to speed within the week. It’s API-led so we can still push the content out to wherever we want in the future and have full control over the front-end templates.

No doubt Contentful is following a yellow brick roadmap to the Emerald City and will be glittering when it gets there. But, for a site such as ours – relied on by thousands of residents and businesses – we can’t rise up as early adopters just yet.

One of the best diaries about a pivot is @ryan-caldbeck at CircleUp. If you haven’t read it and are considering a switch, his Twitter posts are a rollercoaster read.  We’d love to know what you think about our decision and any similar experiences you’ve encountered on your CMS projects. Please post your comments below.

Might Hackney be digital council of the year?

We’re incredibly pleased to have been nominated for digital council of the year in the Digital Leaders 100 and being shortlisted alongside other councils whose work we admire and who we have been fortunate to learn from.

Local government isn’t a zero sum game – our residents all benefit when we work together, even if they live in areas of the country with very different local needs. At Hackney we are committed to collaboration across local public services and we believe strongly that local government can be much more than the sum of its parts. We’re determined to make sure that we are playing our part in making that happen and that is why Hackney was a founder-signatory of the Local Digital Declaration.

We are working in the open and are playing an active role in partnerships between councils and other partners so that as many taxpayers as possible can benefit from our work. And this works both ways – we know that we’ve benefited from the work that other councils have shared with us and the insight we’ve gained from their feedback on our work.

Among the things that we are most proud of are our open User Research Library, which shares the insights we’re getting from our user research; the improvements to Pipeline that we’ve led, helping to catalyse collaboration across local government; our ambitious apprenticeship programme, with a cohort of 21 apprentices joining our team last autumn and growing network of local employers working together to build digital opportunities in the borough; and also sharing our code through GitHub and our API hub, so that other councils can reuse and contribute to the development.

Our team blog shares updates from the work we’re doing and our team’s progress. When I joined Hackney I was pleased to find that the Council had taken digital seriously for a long time, with investment in in-house skills, data and bringing core systems up to date. By sharing our work in the open we have been able to raise the profile of Hackney’s digital work, make new connections, broaden our supplier base, bring in innovative new thinking, and attract great people to join our team which is helping us to accelerate our progress.

We are also making some big strides towards addressing some of the key technology challenges that all too often hold back real transformation of local public services. Our work in Housing Services and Planning is helping us to move away from big monolithic systems provided by a single vendor, which is too often cited as a reason why councils have struggled to meet citizens’ rising expectations for services. Through use of the Government’s Digital Marketplace, open source software and open standards, based on modern cloud services we are demonstrating that local government can work with SMEs, tackle vendor lock-in and develop user-centric apps that can be continuously improved to better meet users’ needs.

The Mayor of Hackney’s Digital Advisory Panel, bringing in local digital experts to help us explore emerging issues and opportunities, and our determination not to have a standalone ‘digital strategy’ but instead to embed technology and data across the strategic plans for every Council service show Hackney’s deep commitment at a senior leadership level to using technology and data to deliver better services at lower cost.

Looking forward, we know that we have plenty of challenges that we will need to focus on. We need to continue to push ourselves to deliver excellent digital services for our residents through the work we have in progress. We are working hard to provide our users with workplace technology that will enable modern and collaborative working styles. And we need to make sure that we apply the principles of user centred service design to internal processes as well as to the services we provide to the public. Our residents’ expectations and the need to respond to the further budget challenges facing local councils will make the contribution that our works make ever more important.

Whether or not our work at Hackney makes us digital council of the year is for others to judge. But we are delighted with being nominated and shortlisted and we see this as an endorsement for the commitment and vision shown by everyone at Hackney (including our suppliers and partners from other organisations that we are working with) who is helping us to deliver digital change for our borough, not just the people with ICT on their badge. In my first year at Hackney, I emailed 76 colleagues across the Council at Christmas to thank them for going above and beyond to support our work. Last Christmas it was over 200 people and this year it will be even more.

Making Freedom of Information requests better

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2000 and places a duty on public bodies to publish information about their work and also gives citizens the right to request information about the work of public bodies. At Hackney Council we are committed to transparency and fulfilling our FOI responsibilities, but we also need to do this in the context of rapidly growing demand and ever tightening resources.

In recent years at Hackney we have seen an increase in the number of FOIs that we receive year on year, and in the 2018/19 financial year we expect to receive more than 2000 requests. In each of the past 3 years the Council has sustained a consistent number of responses to FOI requests within the statutory time limits and we have not been able to keep pace with the growing demand. As a result the overall % of responses that we send out on time has fallen.

This is in the context of substantial cuts to Council funding which have put pressure on all of the services that we provide to our residents. It’s important that we minimise the burden that responding to FOIs has on service teams so that they can protect the services that residents and businesses in our borough rely on.

Our work on FOIs includes simplifying the systems that we use to manage FOI responses so that our processes are as efficient as possible, and also improving performance data so that we can provide targeted support to services who need to respond to FOIs.

But the work that we think will be most important in making FOIs better is using open data and smarter technology for submission of requests which will help requesters find data that has already been published so that we receive fewer FOI requests.

We’ve already started with that and through a project last year we now have a new online service for FOI requests ( This was developed in partnership with mysociety and used extensive user research to make the process as simple as possible. One of the features that we introduced with this is a smart search tool which automatically looks at information that we have already published and makes suggestions for information that might meet the requesters’ needs. We believe that we have already avoided c 50 FOIs because of this and will be doing more analysis to assess the impact that this is having.

In line with our principles of working in the open and sharing, this is available as open source for other councils to use:

We’re now working to build on that and take it further.

Firstly, we are analysing the data we have on FOI requests to identify common themes. We’ll be using this to publish more information proactively as open data so that the smart search tool can help more people find the information they’re looking for without having to submit an FOI to get it.

Secondly, we are working with colleagues in Suffolk, Stevenage and Cornwall to look at the user journey for council staff who manage and respond to FOI requests and prototype digital tools and data standards which might better support them and allow them to handle requests from the public more efficiently. This joint project was successful in securing funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital fund and you can read more about the project and keep up to date with our progress through the Pipeline digital collaboration platform: