The NSW Department of Education, in partnership with the Department of Customer Service has developed a new digital student enrolment service which it expects to save school administration staff 1.4 million pages of manual data entry.

But what started as the digitisation of a form – removing a single pain point flagged by the Department of Education – eventually led to a redesign of the full enrolment process, one that is being delivered with user journeys and design thinking. 

The initiative, currently in a pilot phase, earned the department Which-50’s inaugural award for Best Employee Engagement program.

By digitising students’ enrolment information, previously captured with a 16 page handwritten form completed by parents and then manually entered into school systems, the entire enrolment process had an opportunity to evolve, according to Sandi Simpkins, director, Service Design in the Department of Education. 

“The challenge was that we have two sets of users – the 16 page form takes parents maybe 30 to 40 minutes to complete, and then it takes each school administrator another 30 to 45 minutes to process the application data, to enter it into a system to capture the information.”

Digitising the form reduced parents’ completion time by around five to 10 minutes, a modest reduction, Simpkins told Which-50. But the feedback received through the pilot shows the new process is saving school administrators around 30 minutes of data entry for each application and also significantly reducing the number of interactions they need to have to clarify or seek additional data from parents.

Sandi Simpkins, director, Service Design in the Department of Education. Supplied.

“That gives them roughly 30 minutes back per application to spend face to face with families, talking about a student’s individual needs and getting each child ready for school which is just so important in setting them up for learning success.

“We know a cooperative approach from parents and school staff in children’s early years leads to better educational, emotional, and social outcomes.”

Simpkins explained, “In addition to the time saved, following an Agile delivery process allows us the opportunity to release a base system to schools while we continue to build out the service to provide additional features and benefits, always with what the users need at the centre of decision making.” 

Parents can fill out the digital forms via mobile or desktop, allowing them to complete it at more convenient times. Simpkins says the data quality is also improved as human error is reduced and there is less back and forth between parents and administrators over missing information – which in some cases could add hours to each enrolment application.

She says ultimately it saves parents and school administrators’ time, which can then be spent with students and families.

The paper application will always remain an option for parents who prefer or require it. 

Finding a problem, solving a problem

According to Marina Chiovetti, Director, Digital.NSW Accelerator in the Department of Customer Service, the agency which assists other agencies with customer and digital projects, the initial problem – a need to digitise data collection and entry – was “redesigned” after it was widened to include considerations for all the stakeholders affected.

The Digital.NSW Accelerator team conducted six weeks of research with a wide range of schools across the state, capturing parent and administrator needs from various geographies and socio-economic status.

Parents can now complete the student enrolment process online. Supplied.

The methodology, following a Design Thinking ‘Double-Diamond’ framework, has not always been standard in government projects.

“What we know is, whatever we think the problem is in our office towers in the middle of the CBD, often it’s not the real problem when you hit the ground and talk to the actual users,” Chiovetti says.

The research revealed that the manual process was laborious for both parents and schools, and parents were unsure why some of the information was being requested and what it was being used for.

After a few weeks out in the field, the team came back together with an updated problem statement, encompassing a broader range of challenges: “How might we help parents understand their options and obligations during enrolment, making it easier for them to achieve their goals and better support schools in facilitating mainstream enrolment.”

Redefining the problem allowed a clearer objective, Chiovetti said, one that showed the process needed to be changed to better support both parents and schools, not just to digitise a form.

The second part of the Double-Diamond methodology relates to how the problem, now established, can be solved.

“We built a bunch of different prototypes of what a service might look like, including different workflows and different actual screen designs. And we took those different prototypes back out to our parents and schools, and we tested them to see if they hit the mark.

“So the going wide again, in the second diamond, is going out and testing with users how those prototypes would work and getting more feedback because our ideas on how we think we can solve the problem usually don’t hit the mark on our first try.”

The agency spent over six weeks co-designing and testing prototypes with real end users, and refining the design based on their feedback. When there was confidence the solution would adequately solve the problem, development teams began building the solution.

Building trust

The co-design process is about making sure that the solutions we build are fit for purpose and appropriately supported.

Marina Chiovetti, Director, Digital.NSW Accelerator in the Department of Customer Service. Supplied.

“There was a lot of change fatigue in the schools, particularly around technology. And because we are [now] co-designing with schools and we are going out [and] showing them what we are designing, then coming back again a few weeks later and showing them the actual things as they are being developed, they very quickly started to build trust with us.”

The trust fostered engagement and more feedback, and ultimately a better product that was more effective on day one, Chiovetti said.

“Once we built it and put it in front of our parent and school users, it was much closer to working the way they expected than had we just gone off and built what we imagined.”

There are downsides to the iterative co-design process, however. Chiovetti says it can be a challenge to show the impact of lots of small changes compared to traditional “ribbon cutting” models where major projects are unveiled years later with lots of fanfare. 

But so far NSW government stakeholders remain engaged, Chiovetti said, and have allocated new streams of funding for the pilot’s expansion.

Chiovetti says the Agile delivery model is a genuine change in the way government departments have worked in the past and it brings new pressures for faster delivery. But the pressure to deliver must be balanced with the need to continuously test with schools.

The pilot has expanded from six to 20 schools this month. With over 2,200 schools across the state Chiovetti says there is plenty of work to do to get the new service into everyone’s hands but the early successes are encouraging.

“Schools are so excited by this. They’re ringing us and saying can we please be one of the next schools. And that’s just unheard of in technology rollouts in government.”

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