GOV.UK Notify goes live for central government, with local government to launch this year

Written by Rebecca Hill on 2 March 2017 in News

The Government Digital Service’s notification service has gone live across all central government departments, with local government – and letters – next on the team’s list.

The GOV.UK Notify team at the Government Digital Service - Photo credit: Flickr, GDS, CC BY 2.0

GOV.UK Notify, which began life as an internal government system, allows departments to send members of the public alerts and information on services.

The aim is to proactively keep people informed, contacting them before they try and get in touch with government. Services send notifications either by integrating Notify with their web applications of back office systems, or by using the Notify interface to upload batches of messages.

Notify entered an invite-only public beta stage last year, and since sending its first message in May has sent 3.75 million notifications – 2.91 million by text and 840,000 by email – for 32 live services.

Services using Notify include the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Export Licensing Service, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Pension Wise service and Passport Office services.

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GOV.Notify in public beta testing

During the invite-only beta testing period the GOV.UK Notify team carried out 500 hours of user research, with the aim of understanding how service teams used Notify.

Lead product manager Pete Herlihy said that one of the main aims was to make Notify as “self-service as possible”, which meant it was important to let people “have a play” with the product and learn what it could do.

However, he said that self-service was also important for the Notify team, because it would ensure that they could rapidly scale the service up to support a large number of users, “without spending all our time helping teams learn to use our service”.

He added that, from watching how teams were using Notify, GDS was “confident now is the right time to make it available to the rest of central government”.

Herlihy added that the team wanted to make sure that Notify was easy for developers to use, with libraries for six of the most commonly-used programming languages in government and extensive user research done with developers.

“We’re confident that Notify is as simple as possible to integrate with your web services and back office systems,” he said.

Local government are expected to be able to use Notify by late 2017, which Herlihy said would happen “once we’ve sorted out the pricing model”.

Herlihy’s blogpost said that Notify was currently free for “most departments”, and the Notify information page says there are no monthly charges or set-up fees, and no procurement process. Services can have unlimited free emails, and 250,000 free text messages a year, after which they cost 1.65p per message.

Space for snail mail

The aim of Notify is to help government departments make cost savings and speed up services by offering people instant access to documents and information. 

The blogpost announcing the cross-government launch of Notify had an example from the Pensions Wise service, which people use to book appointments to find out what they can do with their pension pots.

According to Aman Singh, a business analyst on Pension Wise, Notify had helped save “significant amounts of money” and give instant access to documents.

“Before using Notify we were sending huge amounts of printed paper via post to our customers that complete their appointments. The lead time on these document would be in the region of 10 days,” Singh said.

“Since switching to Notify the uptake for our digital version of the document has been at an average of 90% of appointments attended. It’s just another element of our service we have been able to provide quickly and efficiently for our customers.”

However, Herlihy said that – although the aim of Notify was to reduce the need for services to post letters to people – there would still be times when post was necessary.

For instance, some people prefer post, and there are also legal, security or regulatory reasons that mean letters need to be sent.

As such, Herlihy said, Notify will also let departments send letters, and the first are due to be sent by April 2017. This functionality will be rolled out to all service teams – who won’t have to do anything to gain access to it – by July 2017.

The full roll-out of Notify was welcomed by digital government-watchers, with Mark O’Neill, who is now chief digital officer at the Department for Education but has previously worked at BEIS and GDS, describing it on Twitter as the “easiest integration we have ever had and a class product”.

Meanwhile, former GDS boss Stephen Foreshew-Cain said that it was a “great example of platform thinking” that should be followed by other government services.

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