The initial brief given to Peter Herlihy’s Cabinet Office team of between 10-12 civil servants was to create a ‘status-tracking platform’ for users to monitor their government applications. “One of the biggest challenges early on,” recalls Herlihy, Lead Product Manager for what would become GOV.UK Notify, “was telling the minister – no, we’re not going to build that thing that you’ve been telling everyone we’re going to build. We’re actually going to do something slightly different, but ultimately better.”
“It was a nice idea in theory,” he says of the original proposal, but the worry was that, unless they could get all of government to sign up, the service would be misleading, and “as an end user, you still had to get anxious enough to decide to go and visit that website to sign in.” The service as they envisioned it would instead “just email you, or text you an update” thereby ruling out any dependence on user anxiety.
The service they built, GOV.UK Notify, began operation in May 2016 and is now used by 1000 services across government – a number which the team expects to double within the year. It is used across central and local government as well as in bodies like the NHS, and it’s expected to save £45m a year by enabling them to mass-send text messages, letters and emails.
One Borough Council reported saving £5000 over a three-month-period, because using Notify allowed them to send 3,000 fewer letters.
From replacing letters such as those reminding people to pay their council tax, to texting people their MOT reminders - “That’s quite nice, Herlihy says, “mainly because I missed my MOT for the past two years” - Notify also provides services such as updating donors when their blood has been used.
Importantly, Notify isn’t just improving government through cost-saving measures. Recently, the service has been rolled out to a local authority who are using it to communicate with teenagers in abusive home situations. “They can’t receive phone calls necessarily. They definitely can’t receive letters if they’re reporting something that’s going on that they need to keep quiet,” Herlihy explains, “so Notify allows them to sign up for text message correspondence and they can correspond directly with the social services team and the local authority.
“And they wouldn’t have been able to do that before. Now the team can easily plug into Notify. And they can quickly start having two-way conversations via text message”
Since winning the Operational Excellence Award in 2018, Notify has gone from strength to strength. But it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing. Herlihy explains how they’ve had to fight against convention to maintain their small, tight-knit team.
'It can be very tempting to think: "I'm building something big and important, therefore I need a big, important team on it". But actually I think you'd achieve more with fewer people.'
“It can be very tempting to think: ‘I’m building something big and important, therefore I need a big, important team on it’,” Herlihy says. “But actually I think you’d achieve more with fewer people.”
He believes that the major benefit of the smaller team was that it allowed them to be “fairly close to everything within the product and the service,” and encouraged “really decisive, collaborative working.” Remaining small and close-knit, he says, stopped the team from becoming “fragmented.”
Herlihy explains that they approached the challenge of Notify in a manner more like a small business than a standard civil service team. Instead of going into departments and holding seminars – “You don’t get to go and have a meeting with [Amazon boss] Jeff Bezos,” he says – they encouraged departments to treat it as a self-service programme. Users were encouraged to contact them with any issues, but otherwise to experiment and see how far they could get on their own. “It involved taking some of our users out of their comfort zone,” Herlihy admits, “but once we explained that to people, they were really happy to take that approach.”
When asked what the best aspect of the award win was for them, Herlihy identifies the recognition of their small group’s massive achievement; especially as it came on the back of their battle to prove that their structure was sustainable.
“I don’t want to say ‘rage against the machine’ so much, but we have fought hard to work in a different way. And I think it [the award] was a really important recognition for us, so that we could take that way of work and share it a bit more widely.”
The Civil Service Awards are accepting nominations until the 24th July. For more information please visit the site here.