When I was invited to lead an agile software delivery team at Her Majesty’s Passport Office just over two years ago the first thought that entered my head was “at last, a project that even my dad will understand!” And I’m not even joking.

Attempting to explain what my varied day-to-day duties involve, and what the point of executing them is, usually declines into a dismally unproductive experience for all concerned.

The faces of friends and family share an all-too-familiar glaze whenever I’m asked, “how’s work going?”, and often it feels that only my closest colleagues ever truly understand what it is that I do for a living, or why I do it. But everyone needs a passport, right? Even my dad.

So Far So Good

When I joined this project two years ago only 30% of passport applications being processed by HMPO were digital and the process was pushing the three-week service standard from application to delivery of the document – all in return for monthly expenditure on third party legacy vendor platforms and services.

Today, HMPO are processing almost 70% of their own digital passport applications, providing customers with their passports often within five working days of them making their application (and sometimes even less!), and the department’s budget is paying precisely nothing to third-party vendors for use of their legacy platforms.

This is because – fanfare, please? – we only went and met our principal goal of exiting the third-party vendor platforms in March this year (2019), didn’t we? Get IN! We’re making substantial savings for the department (aka “the country”), and providing the Home Office with a more secure, easily scaled, manageable and inexpensive service, for now and in the future.

Some of these challenges, and more info around the transformational journey we’ve been on, has been mentioned in one of our previous blogs.

Customer satisfaction levels in the services and products we have built exceed those of any other government or, indeed, private sector provided service that I know of. Everyone loves us, and they are telling us so.

With so many toxic Twitter feeds out there it is simply a joy to peruse the Passport Office’s Twitter account from time to time. A veritable font of appreciative warmth and loveliness, it is. Genuinely inspiring. And with over five million passport applications already having flowed through our system to date (July 2019) the feedback keeps just keeps on coming.

Many Moving Parts

The ‘Partner Service’ that we built alongside the new HMPO passport application service has proven to be extremely effective in allowing HMPO’s trusted partners (such as the Post Office Ltd) to interact digitally with the department.

An average of 1,500 new passport applications are now being received digitally from Post Office Counter booths directly into HMPO every day. In nanoseconds. Without using any paper at all and with a digital photo attached. How’s that for modern? In fact, our team just scored a win at the Gov News Direct Paperless Awards.

The internal HMPO Operations Teams are also responding to the changing digital landscape with incredulous jubilation and ground-breaking enthusiasm (I should point out that those are my words, not theirs, although I’m confident they’d agree with me).

By enabling passport applicants to check if their digital photo is likely to be approved or rejected for use before submitting their application is a huge help for all concerned, as is the ability for applicants to nominate someone to confirm their identity online – and for the passport office to receive those endorsements back digitally – all at the press of a button. Simple, seamless, trackable and so much less hassle and faster than it’s ever been.

Similarly, having devised and implemented a new documents service, HMPO are now better able to provide personalised services to their applicants which in turn results in “higher quality” applications being received. Win-Win-Win!

It is within the very best interests of both the customers and the business if applications are able to be examined and passed first time, negating the need for lengthy correspondences, headaches, heart aches and other types of unpleasant side effects. Faster, cheaper, easier and less stressful.

So, What Next?

Having delivered against all of our key objectives on time, within budget and exceeding the agreed quality thresholds does not herald the end of the story, only the successful culmination of the first chapter. I am not quite out of a job just yet (dad will be pleased, as will my mortgage advisor).

As an observer, and end user, of some of the most important online services that almost everyone will sooner or later use, I have been aggrieved to discover that many have remained ongoing ‘projects’, and never truly transitioned into the ‘product’ phase of their lifecycles.

Projects such as this can evolve into large, behemothic beasts that trundle and stumble along, never really letting anyone down too badly but hardly shaping up to be the nimble, reactive kind of services that today’s modern lifestyles demand. The project I am working on isn’t like that.

The next stage in the evolution of the passport service is to transition it from a ‘project’ (that was designed to meet certain key goals and objectives) to a ‘product’, which is recognised as being a service which requires regular maintenance and enhancements in accordance with prevailing moods, trends, technology advances, legal and regulatory alterations, economic conditions and a whole lot more besides. A living, breathing beast, but much more of a panther than a behemoth.

And we’re doing this across two very geographically distant locations (London and Glasgow), with work divided between two dedicated – and passionate – teams, one located in each city. Onwards!

Three key things I have learned so far on this project…

1) Delivering quality software quickly within a government department can be almost frictionless and a lot of fun. Yeah, I know, right. Who knew? Sir Humphrey failed to make a spectral appearance and his hidden hand remained undetected. What a relief!
2) The positive differences the work we do can make for so very many people can never be truly appreciated or quantified, but the motivational benefit our customer’s feedback provides can be inspirational. Even my dad loves it!
3) Never ever crack a smile when you’re posing for your passport photo…