It’s been a year since the last registration blog when we talked about three big questions to consider if you want to start a charity. Shortly afterwards we launched the Commission’s completely digital ‘Apply to Register a Charity’ service (ARC). As the service reaches its first anniversary, it is perhaps fitting that we blog about the three big questions we have had to consider in digitising a highly complex service.
1. Is a new digital service the only way we could achieve our goal?
For the Commission as a whole to remain an effective and robust regulator within the context of a shrinking budget and increased workloads we knew we had to bring our systems and processes into the digital age. Over time, we will provide an increasing number of our services digitally, helping trustees to manage their charities more efficiently and effectively. For example, we will soon be launching two new digital services enabling trustees to change their charity’s name and the objects in their governing document online. In the registration of charities, the need for transformation was even more pressing as we saw the volume of applications soar to over 8,000 in 2015/16 (compared to 6,000 in 2012/13) and this trend continued with a record 8,368 applications in 2016/17.
2. So a new digital service is needed – where do you start?
Our old online service was developed by turning the paper form into an electronic form. This was not the way forward. We knew we needed to develop a system that would:
- Be user friendly for applicants and Commission staff
- Help applicants to provide all the information the Commission requires in order to make an early registration decision wherever possible
- Be flexible and able to adapt to future changing needs.
3. How could we achieve the best service possible with limited resources?
User involvement was crucial to the development of the new service. We have two main sets of users: applicants and Commission staff. We actively sought and received constructive feedback at all stages of the development of the service from both these groups. For example, three features that we have introduced or improved because of what users told us are:
- ‘Digital Assistance’, i.e. the ability for our help staff to log on and see an applicant’s screen, making it easier for them to work through any problems
- Tailoring questions so that applicants only see questions that are relevant to them based on what they have told us about their organisation earlier in the application
- Less use of ‘jargon’, making sure wherever possible questions are written in plain English.
Testing, testing and more testing
After extensive testing, we made the service available to applicants in a ‘beta’ phase. This means that it is available to the public but is still in development. If you like, it is an ‘operational’ testing phase.
By doing this we are able to see and learn from how the service operates when used in “real life” with the full diversity of users and charity types that might be out there, and improve the service as a result.
We are still in the early stages of our digital journey, both as an organisation and in terms of the specific “Apply to Register a Charity” service. As with most digital projects, it has and continues to be a learning experience. However, the initial signs are positive. Over its first 12 months, despite registering 17% more charities in 2016/17 than the previous year, ARC has already helped to reduce the average time it takes us to register a charity by three working days. We expect that this will increase as future iterations and improvements are introduced - great news to celebrate on ARC’s first birthday!
Qualitative feedback is equally valuable to us, and we’ve been really pleased to hear positive comments from the sector such as:
- “it’s loads better than the previous application”
- “the questions are much clearer”
- “the form is very long, but I found it easy to navigate and save and return is essential”
- “the help available is very useful”
But, we know there is much more that we can do. Based on feedback we plan to consider the following areas to make the service even more user friendly:
- Bespoke question sets for different “types” of charity;
- Simplifying the ‘Tax’ section;
- Consideration of ‘electronic signatures’ to replace hand-written signatures on the Trustee Eligibility Declaration.
So whether you are a first time user of the service or a professional advisor regularly logging in, you’re likely to see something new and hopefully improved with each iteration of the service. With that in mind, I suspect we will be blogging again to update you on ARC ‘the next generation’. In the meantime, any changes will be announced on the introduction page of the service.
You can also visit our website for general guidance on applying to register a charity and for the range of questions the ARC service may ask you when applying.
If you are interested in being involved in future testing to improve the service or would like to share any feedback on ARC, we’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.