||Valuation Office Agency (VOA)
The service met the Standard because:
- The service team has identified the range of users who will use the service, and have a strong understanding of the needs of these user groups.
- The service design and content is simple and clear allowing users to complete the service first time unaided, with a number of elements of service design being exemplary.
- The service has been developed beyond the presentation of the rateable value to allow businesses to estimate business rates.
About the service
Service Manager: Margaret Whitby
Digital Leader: Philip Macpherson
The service allows users to find the rateable value for their business property as presented in the draft valuation list; the rateable value is the basis for business rates. Users can suggest changes to the details of their property presented on the draft valuation list ahead of the publication of the final list in April 2017.
Detail of the assessment
Lead Assessor: Thomas Moore
The assessment panel was pleased to see VOA teams working collaboratively and sharing research insights across programmes. The wider programme has developed an understanding of typology of businesses setup and behaviour in relation to business rates management. For this part of the user journey, the service team have gone to great lengths to engage with users by visiting businesses and establishing contact with less digitally skilled users. The panel was pleased to hear that the team were able to test cross-channel experience including mailing letters and call centre support and how the call centre is involved in creating a comprehensive mechanism to track user feedback and recruit users for user research.
The user journey includes letters to trigger a call to action to visit the website. The team has done a great job in simplifying the journey, so users don’t need to login to view either the rateable value or the property description that forms the basis of the business rate calculation. However, the transition from the letter to the online service, and performing search by address could be a challenging task for users, especially as the VOA holds property addresses in a format that differs from that which users are familiar with. This is essential part of the journey that could be a barrier to the information the service provides, so it is critical to carefully monitor this part of the journey for any signs of drop-off and offer appropriate support.
The service has a challenging task of being an ‘awareness service’ where users may not be fully committed to working out the complexities of the business rates calculation. The team conveyed the importance of keeping extraneous information to a minimum whilst presenting enough to help users makes sense of the service. The panel was pleased to hear that the team had done several iterations to evaluate what information is required. It’s important to monitor those page to collect feedback from users in case the information provided is insufficient.
Another challenging aspect is the service’s relationship with local authorities and the business rate value. As the rateable value of a property is part of the calculation for a business rate, it’s important to understand the mental model of the service users. The team described the challenges of presenting a rateable value within the context of business rates. Users may value the business rate estimate over the rateable value. The team have gone beyond simply presenting the rateable value by developing a business rates calculator to help users predict the cost they will have to pay. The panel hopes that at some point users will be able to see in one place their business rate where rateable value will be clearly presented as one the components of the calculation.
The team spoke about how the service can help users and VOA to ‘have a conversation’ and how this service is an opportunity to learn what information is required on both sides. This includes what users want to change, and what users want VOA to know about the property as well as the terminology people use to describe properties. The panel look forward to seeing those insights implemented in future iterations of the service.
The service has been developed in-line with the needs of accessibility users, and a formal accessibility audit has been conducted. The service is tested using accessibility tools as part of the development cycle. Although the team highlighted the difficulty in recruiting business users with accessibility needs, it was disappointing that only very limited testing with accessibility users had been undertaken at the time of the assessment. The team will recruit accessibility users through an agency to address this shortfall in the public beta.
The team largely has coverage of the key agile roles described in the Government Service Design Manual. Whilst the majority of the team is dedicated to this service, several team members are working on the wider valuation programme, providing useful context for the service in the wider programme. Plans are in place for the team to transition to the ‘check, challenge and appeal’ services towards the publication of the final list in April 2017.
Despite the overall quality of design of the service, the panel believe there’s a dependence on the service’s front-end developer that constitutes a weakness in team coverage. Moving into public beta, the team will need to include a dedicated performance analyst.
The tax platform provides a good technology base for the service. The team are working iteratively and have a continuous integration pipeline in place.
There is the potential for impact to users during deployments if forms have been changed in a way that makes an old version of the form incompatible with a new version of the form handling code. The team can reduce the likelihood of user impact by specifically considering and coding for in-flight users. Although this issue is likely to have minimal user impact on this service in isolation, it should be considered in light of related services.
The service does not store any personal information beyond session expiry, and any information submitted is pushed into email for caseworkers to process. The main threat to the system appears to be attackers ‘flooding’ the system and generating lots of amendment requests using bots. The team are working with HMRC webops on ways to detect this kind of attack and take down or rate limit the service. The team will also be able to sift through the set of submissions and separate nuisance submissions from genuine submissions.
The team have conducted user research with assisted digital (AD) users, and the model of AD support appears diverse, multi-channeled, comprehensive, and aligned with the wider VOA support model. Call support allows users to be talked through the digital application process, building digital skills and confidence for the AD user. The team proposed that displaying call centre information as part of the service may act as a confidence boost to users with low-digital skills. Call information is presented as part of the service, and the team should experiment with displaying this information more prominently to determine the effect this has on transaction completion and call volumes.
Whilst AD support is well developed, consideration of the end-to-end user journey for AD users is insufficient. The letters sent to users do not point users to AD support routes, instead relying on friends, family and associate support, and local authorities who will in turn point users to the VOA. This is a poor user journey for AD users, and pushes AD provision on to local authorities who can’t directly help users. This impact of this is greater now that the letters don’t include the rateable value.
Further letters must include directions for AD users to ensure the service meets their needs.
The team should continue to evaluate the needs of users through the entire user journey. There is a danger in developing the draft valuation response service separately from the final valuation services that the user journey between the two stages will be neglected. The team should continue to consider the end-to-end journey for service users, for instance, looking to engage with users who aren’t happy with the outcome of the amendment they’ve made to the draft and how users should be notified of the publication of the final list, and how they can subsequently seek to change it if required.
The team should work to make the content more findable. The current search is somewhat inflexible as it only allows users to search on postcode or street address, and the user has to choose what type of thing they’re searching for. An improved search would allow users to search for any part of an address (including business name) from a single search box. Plans to add additional filters and criteria to the search should only be carried out if they meet genuine user needs.
Ultimately, a lot of pressure could be taken off the search if the property pages were indexable by search engines. That way users could get to the page for their business simply by entering the relevant search term into a search engine.
The team plan to report the four mandatory Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and have engaged with the Performance Platform team to get performance data on the platform. The team should continue to look for additional, actionable metrics. Measuring the usage and accuracy of the business rate estimator (for instance, does the predicted business rate match the actual business rate that users will have to pay?) is something that the team should consider for future re-evaluation events.
To pass the next assessment, the service team must:
Act on the recommendations of the accessibility audit and further test the service with users with accessibility needs.
Address the potential shortfall design and performance analyst coverage.
Ensure AD users are fully provisioned for throughout the user journey; further mailings must make users aware of the VOA assisted digital support routes.
The service team should also:
Continue to consider the end-to-end user journey, and address potential drop-off points such as the transition from the letter to the online service, and the search step.
Monitor user feedback and adapt the level of information presented to the user accordingly.
Evaluate coverage of agile team roles and address gaps and weaknesses.
Assess the deployment process to diminish the impact on in-flight users.
Continue to work with HMRC webops to safeguard the service against bot attacks.
Consider iterating the positioning of the VOA contact information in the service.
Make content more findable.
Continue to look for additional, actionable metrics.
Digital Service Standard points