GDS takes on snail mail

The Government Digital Service is beta testing ways to improve how government sends out letters, saying that automation could cut the cost of sending a letter from £3 to 29p.

GDS says it wants to help departments cut letter-sending costs, but also urges departments to consider digital – Photo credit: Flickr, teakwood

The team that runs the government’s automated notification system GOV.UK Notify – which launched for public beta testing in July – is leading on the work to develop a simpler, faster and cheaper way of sending letters.

According to a blogpost on the Government-as-a-Platform blog, the processes involved in local printing in an office include a number of steps: sending the letter to print, queueing at the printer, finding and stuffing it into an envelope, franking the letter and dropping it into the post tray.

This, it said, costs almost £3 a letter. And, with teams also paying up to £12,000 every time a change is made to letters – which happens two or three times a year – sending post was a very costly process.

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GDS said it wanted to reduce costs by making the process simpler and less time-consuming; it noted that changing content often involved proofing by four teams and could take up to 18 months.

It said it was looking at creating templates that can be easily and cheaply managed and changed – this would also help the overall process of letter-sending, it said.

“Some teams already have comprehensive case management systems that populate letters with content. So those teams only need to consider print and post processes. But other teams need to create and manage templates to generate letters,” the blogpost said.

It said that automated processes could cut the cost to 50p a letter, but that Notify’s aim was to look across the whole system and cut the cost of printing, envelope and postage to 29p a letter.

The blogpost also emphasised that the way the letter is written will have knock-on effects that will drive up costs elsewhere in the system.

“Using complex language, and including jargon in letters is a problem,” it said. “In one case we looked at, enquiries about letters generated around 40% of all call centre contact from users.”

It said that by creating a standard template and guidance on letter writing would help address this.

And, despite the blogpost being about cutting costs of letter sending, it did add that it was urging departments to think about reducing their use of letters and opting for cheaper digital options, such as text or email.

“We know this won’t always be possible because there are still some services that legally require ‘wet signatures’, and others that rely on verifying someone’s address by sending them a letter,” it said.

Meanwhile, a separate blogpost set out GDS’ plans to overhaul the email subscriptions that people have set up with GOV.UK.

There are more than 500,000 people subscribed to such notifications – which amounts to 1.5 million emails a day. GDS is running a discovery project to see why users need the email notifications and how they are managing their subscriptions.

According to initial research, the three most used updates are about travel advice, medical device alerts and Competition and Markets Authority cases.

“We will be spending the next few weeks recruiting users and talking to publishers within departments to start to get a deeper understanding of user needs,” the blogpost said.


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