Life Events Service Design – Project Closure Report

Purpose of document

This document summarises the work done on the Life Events Service Design project. It covers the initial background and approach the project took. It then describes the key outputs and challenges during its progress within the Alpha phase. Finally, it presents a retrospective view of the project and some lessons that can be learnt and hopefully taken away for any future project work within the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) Digital Team.

Background and approach of the project

The WLGA Digital Team received Ministerial approval to run a discovery project to understand if, by following human-centred design principles, there are viable, cost-effective ways to make it easier for citizens to engage with council services. By adopting a human-centred design approach, the project aimed to look holistically at the end-to-end system, to identify and solve fundamental problems. This approach also recognised the importance of each person involved in the delivery of a service – extending beyond the citizen to include the experience of council employees and external delivery partners. The project looked at ways to bring together services offered to support citizens during a specific life event (for example, a recent disability diagnosis or a divorce). For the Discovery, the project focused on the life event of entering poverty. 

From its Discovery phase, the project adopted the following problem statement that the team would look to address:

“How can we make it easier for the people of Wales to engage with council services in a way that helps them efficiently fix their problems, address their issues, or achieve a specific need?

The Discovery phase encompassed three main pillars of activity, related to the life event of entering poverty:

  • user research
  • service process mapping
  • skills transfer

The aim of each of these was to identify the best approach, highlight any potential issues that would hamper progress, and assemble one or more viable, cost-effective problem-solving options to prioritise and test during a possible Alpha phase, providing there was a valid case for this.

Upon completion of the Discovery phase, the team created and defined a series of themes at an epic level which formed the basis of further exploration and testing through an Alpha phase. These epic level themes were:

  • Library of Services
  • Service Design Skills
  • Easy to Find
  • Set Expectations
  • Complete the Outcome

The team first took forward the Library of Services epic into an Alpha phase. This was followed by the Easy to Find epic. The outputs and outcomes of these Alphas are summarised in the next section.

Project progress, outputs, and achievements

One of the strengths of the overall project was the range, quantity and quality of user research that was conducted. This covered several related areas concerning a citizen entering poverty, their feelings around this situation, wanting to understand what help was available to them and then trying to access services to alleviate their situation. The research gave a very useful insight into user experience when using or wanting use council services. The initial bulk of research conducted took place during the Discovery phase and covered the user experience of citizens seeking help with their circumstances.

First Alpha phase

The first Alpha phase covered the Library of Services epic. This idea was to create a series of ready-made front end services that could be subsequently stored in an online repository that councils could take and use for themselves. The first test to be done for this part of the Alpha was: “Can we produce front end services that are better for citizens than what they currently use?”​

The first service the team decided to design, build and test (including further research on its usability compared to existing services) was Council Tax Reduction. The team used the Figma tool to design a new look Council Tax Reduction service prototype and they utilised GOV.UK design principles.

Prior to testing the new prototype, a group of citizens were invited to usability test existing Council Tax Reduction services from 3 councils. The usability scores for these were very low and it was recorded that none of the participants in the usability tests were able to complete the online application.

When the new prototype Council Tax Reduction service went through usability testing, the resulting scores from users were very high and the overall experience of using it also scored very highly. In terms of the first tests from this Alpha exercise, the team had achieved success.

 ​Existing Service: Average​ score out of 5Service Prototype: Average score out of 5
How easy did you find this service to use ​1.6​4.7​
How easy was the content to understand​3.8​4.5​
How likely are you to recommend this service to a friend​1.8​5​

User feedback on existing Council Tax Reduction services vs the prototype service

However, while it had been proven that a more user-friendly service could be built, this was just part of the overall Alpha exercise. The wider aim of constructing a range of front-end services in an online repository used by councils had serious flaws as the team soon found out while looking to get a council to adopt their prototype.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the team, conversations with Cardiff and Caerphilly councils revealed that their supplier and technical arrangements meant they could not use the prototype. This was either due to cost of implementation (that their supplier would have to charge them) or the fact it just wasn’t compatible with the platforms they are supplied with by their respective suppliers. Several other offers to other councils to use the prototype were not responded to.

This outcome meant that the entire Library of Services idea was not feasible, it wasn’t just down to the one prototype service that had been designed. If another service had been designed, the barrier to implementation or lack of interest from councils would have still been present. Due to this, the Library of Services Alpha was stopped.

Second Alpha

A second Alpha exercise was started, this time picking the Easy to Find epic. The theme for this epic was: “As a citizen entering a life event, I want to be able to find, understand and locate the entirety of the support services available to me so that I can focus on what will best help me improve my immediate and longer-term situation.​”

For this epic the team introduced a change following observations from the previous Alpha phase, namely ensuring input from councils and other stakeholders to discuss ideas including whether these were feasible for them to use. To enable this, the team set up a steering group with representation from Local Authorities (LAs), WLGA, Citizens Advice and CDPS (Centre for Digital Public Services).  Early in this Alpha phase planning, there was uncertainty on what exactly Easy to Find should cover and what it meant. Following the first steering group meeting, the team discussed this with the group and obtained answers.

The Team was aware that more user research was needed to support this Alpha phase and presented some initial ideas for research to the steering group. Feedback enabled the team to better define the ideas and to cover specific areas of research. The team then conducted user research into how citizens currently locate services and help, what trust issues exist, and their level of awareness of support and help available.

Project activity was increasingly finding other similar work looking at the effects of the Cost of Living crisis which was affecting an increasing number of people within the UK. Councils were creating tailored websites or landing pages for related Cost of Living help services. CDPS were also conducting work in this area too, across user research and content design.

Through connections in the steering group, the team collaborated with the User Centred Design (UCD) team at CDPS to contribute and help run a one-day Cost of Living workshop for all LAs, Welsh Government and third sector organisations. The event was seen as very positive by the bulk of the LA attendees and attendance was excellent with all 22 LAs having representatives present.

The user research for the Easy to Find Alpha phase once again provided very good insight into how citizens locate and access services, their awareness of such services and their trust in using council-run online services.

In parallel to the research taking place, the team performed a content critique with Carmarthenshire Council on their Claim What’s Your website. This built on a relationship that had gradually grown following the council’s attendance at the project’s Show and Tells, plus requests the team had made to councils to ask how they could help authorities.

Follow-on work from the Alpha phase

Positive feedback from Vale of Glamorgan’s attendance at the Cost of Living workshop and engagement with a key contact at that council who was invited to the steering group has led to the team conducting another content critique, expected to take place in January 2023.

Also, following attendance at the Cost of Living Workshop and attendance at the steering group meetings, Pembrokeshire Council agreed to work with the team to help them design a new Cost of Living landing page in the first quarter of 2023.

Building on the existing relationship with Carmarthenshire, the team are engaged with the council during January and February 2023 to help design an infographic product to promote their Cost of Living support services, focusing initially on social media channels. This product, if successful, will be designed so that it could be reused by other councils.

Shortcomings of the project

  • Communication was a reoccurring problem within the project. While one to one fact finding engagement was good during Discovery, there was no ongoing dialogue to help shape the work of the project.
  • Show and Tell sessions are no substitute for proper engagement with stakeholders.
  • The capability of the team was also something that was not fully considered, there was no development capability, yet a development idea was pursued.
  • Tools at the team’s disposal were not sufficient to progress a development project.
  • Good ideas do not necessary become viable ideas, and the team need to think more about stakeholders and what would help them, not decide that for them.
  • The scope of the project was too large and overambitious for the resources the team had at their disposal.
  • The investment needed plus the level of stakeholder buy-in and acceptance required to fully progress and deliver the project’s stated aims would have been considerable and was not thought out fully.
  • While some setup and ongoing support costs were identified as something to explore, these should have been looked at sooner in the project’s timeline.

Main lessons learnt

  • There was a good application of Agile in the running of the project, the team aspect was well structured and the team used the ceremonies well – from a personal level the project was relatively easy for me to come into and take over the delivery manager role.
  • The team was receptive to challenges and the need to change direction when it was required.
  • There was a positive use of user research and the sharing of the outputs with a wider audience across Welsh LAs and other public sector bodies.
  • More effort needed to be spent establishing better communication with stakeholders, making it more two-way.
  • Setting up collaborative arrangements and maintaining relationships with LAs or other Welsh public bodies would benefit future work opportunities.
  • Better understanding needed of the supplier arrangements and technical platforms used within LAs and the associated constraints these can present to implementing new digital services.
  • The team need to work with LAs to better understand their needs and what would be helpful to them as opposed to thinking of good ideas and subsequently trying to sell them to LAs.
  • Better scoping of projects and their potential viability (including costs and resources) needs to be factored into any future commissioning model.

Floyd Gleaves

Delivery Manager

WLGA Digital Team

24th January 2023