fcdo series - formbuilder

Low-code, open source citizen services: solving the speed and cost challenges

This blog shares the story of the xGovFormBuilder - how it came about and how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) services have benefited from being more efficient and effective through it.

As the Consular Services digital partner for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Caution Your Blast Ltd (CYB) has been on a drive to deliver extra efficiencies and effectiveness. We’ve managed this by developing the xGovFormBuilder, a low-code, open source product that deals with the long tail of low volume FCDO services seen across the world, and which is now available for any team delivering online services. 

The story of the xGovFormBuilder 

The CYB team who led the discovery into FCDO services providing assistance to British citizens overseas found a complex variety of paper-based services. These often had very low volumes and varied from country to country due to differing local laws, for example in how to obtain permission to get married abroad, or how to handle a bereavement abroad. It very much benefitted citizens for these services to be made available online via GOV.UK, which in turn would help the FCDO provide support in a more timely and effective way.  

To deliver these new digital services in a cost-effective way was our challenge. This led us to seeking a lean UX design tool that removed the need to code the variances from country to country. We wanted the capability to rapidly design, build, test, iterate, deploy and maintain highly functioning, high-quality services at minimal cost and effort. Effectively we needed a game changer for creating new digital services.

After reviewing off-the-shelf form builders and a number of government custom-built initiatives, we forked the open-source code of one from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The team there had experimented with a visual editing view that was very promising for our focus that this would become a professional design-time tool.

We aimed to build this out to create a product that supported our Lean UX methodology and did not rely on engineering skills. Subsequently the main challenges we encountered and dealt with while iterating were:

  • GOV.UK front end patterns were 95% usable as-is thanks to the talented Government Digital Service design team but they are designed for UK in-country services, and needed to be optimised for citizen user interactions overseas 

  • The runtime server complexity increased to handle users that need repeated looping sections to enter details, for example for multiple family members 

  • There was a need to apply logic as users need to follow different branches based on the data they were entering

  • Users often required functionality for document upload, payment, and to receive notifications

  • Services need to submit data to a variety of end points, from existing case working systems to temporary cloud-based data storage 

  • Deploying multiple services to a common runtime infrastructure was needed to reduce effort across implementation, testing, and assurance

  • UX Designers needed to clone a service when service design patterns are similar or to apply minor changes for scenarios whereby data collection needs vary (e.g. law variations between countries)

  • Designers needed creation of master templates and patterns for collecting frequently requested information like passport details, speeding up the design process whilst keeping within GDS design guidelines

  • When services could be under the same domain being able to host these on one set of infrastructure i.e. one instance - multiple services

Then one day in the Spring of 2020, the value of the idea and all the ensuing work became blatantly clear when FCDO’s emergency COVID-19 response suddenly kicked in and we had ten days to launch a new service. Of course it was still a push and involved long hours and the weekend, but launch we did along with a commendation on the technology in an external service standard review done in those ten days. The lean UX cycles we’d completed numbered around a dozen and this delivered a highly usable service with no issues post launch. In a difficult time this way of working was suddenly validated, and possible only due to this new product, subsequently named the xGovFormBuilder.   

Since that service: COVID-19: Apply for an emergency loan abroad, we have used the xGovFormBuilder to create many new GOV.UK services including:  

  • Prove your eligibility 

    • Get married abroad (varies by country)

    • Import a car into Portugal 

  • COVID-19: Register your interest in a return flight to the UK

  • Find a professional service abroad (varies by country) 

  • Find a COVID-19 test abroad (varies by country)

  • Register a death abroad

  • Register a birth abroad 

We now have one Service/UX designer, working in collaboration with local policy and operations, rolling out services around the world implementing the variations from country to country. The cost/benefit for this long tail of services is no longer a barrier and digital transformation is going ahead at pace.

This has turned out to be just a start as during that time, in addition to making the code available under an open source licence, we made the decision to manage it as an open source project. Consequently other government suppliers have used the xGovFormBuilder to deliver new services efficiently and there is a growing active community of designers and developers contributing to the product. Overseas governments are also getting involved, and you can easily get involved too. The project team talks on http://xgov-digital-form-bld.slack.com so why not get involved and start delivering low-code, high quality, citizen facing services at pace?

On a mission

Building these online services for GOV.UK helped British nationals abroad by:

  • making it easier to apply for vital assistance 

  • saving time and effort by reducing/removing the need to call/visit local embassies 

  • giving peace of mind during difficult moments 

This was most obvious when we helped with the FCDO’s emergency COVID-19 response. At the height of the first lockdown, some British nationals were stranded abroad, unable to find a commercial flight home, and in some cases running out of money. It was a time of great uncertainty and distress. 

A quick response was paramount, and the xGovFormBuilder allowed us to rapidly build two vital services. Those British nationals stuck overseas could now apply for an emergency loan for living costs, as well as register to book the next available flight back to the UK. In helping people to get home safely, or by making it easier to secure some financial aid, we were providing a lifeline at a time of need.

In terms of cost-effectiveness, when the COVID-19: Apply for an Emergency Loan service went live, the FCDO found it saved in excess of £400,000. In addition the workload for British embassies was reduced, allowing them to concentrate on high-level cases, and ongoing service improvements and changes were more easily accepted and manageable. We note that it supported digital delivery and operational policy teams to design more closely together, and this encourages a working relationship between these people, which is a key to better government services.

We hope you find this post interesting and helpful, and please do get in touch if there is anything we’ve mentioned here you’d like to know more about.

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