The Digital Application Processing (DAP) team at Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) are building an innovative digital case management system that can process all UK passport applications. Equal Experts plays a leading role in the team, building iteratively with the goal of replacing an existing system as well as transforming HMPO operations. DAP has been managing live passport applications for almost two years – already having processed close to two million cases.
Since the start of the UK lockdown measures, the DAP team at HMPO have made the transition from remote-friendly to remote-first by adapting and leveraging existing infrastructure and practices already in place, as well as by demonstrating an innovative approach to problem solving.
How we have adapted
HMPO began by clearly articulating what is important. Starting with the highest priority first:
- Keep people safe – across the whole organisation
- Protect the live service – maintain the ability to process passport applications
- Covid-19 response – prioritise specific features that will ease limitations brought about by the crisis
- Keeping delivery on track
The DAP team has been operating a distributed team model between three main sites in London, Glasgow and Aldershot for a while now, so we already had good practices in place for facilitating effective communication and delivering value for our client at a distance. We’ve also been discovering that our people are finding new ways to approach problems, here’s what we’ve found helps…
We already knew we had amazing individuals in our teams, but in this time of crisis, where other priorities have to come above work, we’ve seen an overwhelming sense of positivity, flexibility and a willingness to make it work from all our people.
We asked our teams for examples of things they’ve done to help make working during a crisis easier, here are some of the things they said:
- Maintaining a routine is helpful – I’ve carried on setting an alarm, taking exercise at the same time each week day and continuing to put makeup on everyday
- Setting up a small office in my spare bedroom (working from the kitchen for the first week was a bit distracting on the snack front!)
- Taking 90 minutes off from Slack twice a day so I can focus on giving my child attention when he needs it
- Still eating breakfast at my breakfast meeting – I coordinate what I’m going to cook with my colleague and we have matching breakfasts from our houses
- Borrowed my mum’s spare TV to use as a monitor – that has made all the difference
- I scheduled daily hugs with my housemate, as I missed human contact!
We were initially unsure about being able to onboard new starters while fully remote – how do you make someone feel welcome and included from a distance? There are various activities that we typically take new starters through, which are far easier in person:
- Introducing people round the office, shaking hands etc
- Security assessments of any machines used for development
- Whiteboarding sessions to introduce various aspects of the project
In the weeks before lockdown measures came into force, we’d focused on hiring a lot of new people to form a new delivery team, and since we had put the hard work into finding the best people, we didn’t want to then delay their start dates with us, and risk losing them.
We started small with just one of our new starters and worked with HMPO Security group to create a fully remote security assessment process of machines being used. We got them onto Slack quickly and did welcome messages for them, encouraging everyone on the team to take the time to introduce themselves. We then did remote onboarding sessions and knowledge transfer, making sure to follow up with notes and diagrams afterwards, to aid in understanding. We asked for and offered frequent feedback for the team doing the remote onboarding as well as the person being onboarded to ensure we weren’t missing anything that we would usually have noticed if we were co-located.
Six team members have now joined DAP since we moved to fully remote: a content designer, three developers and two testers. Each new team member has fed back that they feel welcome and included, and are able to get on with meaningful work – adding huge value to HMPO.
Physically distant, socially connected
Like most teams, every now and then there will be social activities after work. Obviously this isn’t possible at the moment (for good reason), so we decided to try a DAP Virtual Happy Hour – every Friday at 4pm, people who want to, jump onto a video call and catch up on the week. It’s become something that we actively look forward to – and is a chance for people who don’t have conversations through the week to see each other, catch up, and we’ve even done a pub quiz on one of the calls. One of our colleagues has just had a baby, so we’re hoping to meet her at the next one!
If we were all in the office, we’d get social interactions with members of other teams as well as our own. We’ve been doing remote tea breaks with members of other teams – we’re finding it to be a good excuse to get up from the screen and put the kettle on, and while not a complete substitute, it gives us a chance to get some interaction outside of the colleagues we work with on a daily basis.
We’ve also started using a shared Spotify playlist – every day we pick a theme, and people add songs to the list. So far we’ve been using letters of the alphabet – we found that “P” generated the best mix of songs so far – we’re all dreading “X” a bit though! We also need to decide what to do once we reach the end of the alphabet – ideas on a postcard please!
With our primary focus on keeping people safe, we’ve been working on a project to enable HMPO Operational staff to work both remotely and securely. Our system is perfectly and uniquely positioned to provide this capability, and we are part way through the implementation plan now. This is preparatory work to aid HMPO during the recovery phase – when restrictions start to be lifted, and passport application numbers start to increase again.
The team continues to operate and monitor the live service, working with the business to regularly prioritise the roadmap and delivering high priority features at pace. With a reduction in users processing applications, monitoring has become easier to do – however, as the DAP service is used in four sites across the country, we were already well practiced at supporting users from a distance.
Our roadmap has evolved with the prioritisation of covid-related features. We’re tracking these by highlighting them on the roadmap, and by communicating the number of person-days being spent on these requirements. It’s not a perfect metric, but it gives us all a visual reminder of where our priorities are right now, and what the impact further down the road may be. These new features include:
- Increased automation through our system – reducing the human touchpoints in our system
- Additional security measures – in preparation for using the system remotely
- Removing team constraints from our service – allowing increased flexibility for our operational teams on who picks up what work
- Extending the withdrawal windows – we’ve increased the time on all applications in live as many people will be unable to complete their applications in the current circumstances
Really, really enjoying seeing these amazing outcomes – you continue to deliver no matter what’s thrown at you. Thank you!
Philippa Manley, HMPO Digital Services & Projects Director
I’ve been very impressed by the speed with which our teams found their new normal and proud that not a single person expected we would stop delivery.
Sarah Ravenhill, Digital Service Manager
The way the DAP team have adapted to distributed working has been remarkable. They have reacted to change with creativity and determination and the fact that they have continued to deliver the core DAP changes as well as reacting to Covid-19 support requests is testimony to the way they work together as a group.
Neil Carne, Portfolio Director
Authors: Beccy Stafford, John Connor, Nick Ashley, Plamen Balkanski, Seán Mundy