There are 174 transactional digital services on GOV.UK and more are being added on a weekly basis. Digital services have become critical to helping citizens and organisations get the help and support they need, particularly during COVID-19.
Government Digital Service (GDS) previously ran a discovery to understand the form building challenge across government. Although the Submit project did not go ahead at the time, the work remained on the GDS backlog. Recent events of COVID-19 and Brexit have magnified the importance of forms when building digital services.
There is currently a need to raise awareness and encourage collaboration across government in this area.
How government currently build forms for digital services
GDS and Home Office hosted a cross-government hack day followed by a workshop in June, with over 60 attendees at both events. There were some recurring themes in the workshop.
- Teams within departments are building forms so there is no consistent government approach and there is duplication of effort.
- There are many common needs for functionality across the organisations, for example, searching for an address by postcode.
- A few form builders are “designed” to be used by technical people and require some technical knowledge. For example, understanding of ‘JSON’ is required to write conditional statements in code.
- More emphasis should be placed on content and interaction design when building services using forms.
- Some organisations across government use form builders to create services but often do not have the resources to continue maintaining the tools they build.
Departments are taking different approaches to meeting their needs for forms. These include:
- creating and maintaining internal form building tools using in-house staff or suppliers
- developing bespoke forms without a form builder
- using a commercial solution
- doing a combination of the above
Bespoke form development can be simpler and faster in some cases when there is no ready-made tooling available. The forms used in the extremely vulnerable person service were coded as it was spun up within 48 hours during COVID-19.
A group of GDS senior technologists evaluated existing commercial and public sector form builders from Survey Monkey and MOJ before beginning this work. They also reviewed GOV.UK’s work on Smart Answers, Brexit Checkers and Submit. The team ended up using the same approach as the Brexit Checker, which helped to launch vulnerable person service at speed.
Investigating the needs and options of forms
GDS has set up a cross-government working group to find ways to share best practice. There were plenty of ideas to take forward from our workshop. There are a variety of options the workgroup is looking into based on the workshop, which include:
- evaluating the commercial solutions on the market and deciding if they are capable of providing all the necessary requirements to the government
- creating a centrally managed SaaS service
- standardising the schema for form builders
- building design communities for form-based digital services
- helping smaller organisations to build better, more consistent and cost effective services by pairing them with large departments who can provide expertise in this area
We’ve highlighted that there is a user need to solve this challenge across the government. Any potential solutions need to cover all technical, design and governance aspects of forms in a digital service.
We aim to run ongoing cross-government workshops to address the different aspects of the forms in digital services. This can include:
- building a form specific design community
- building a shared web space or area
- discussing standards and governance
- organising technical hack days
- vendor engagement
If you're interested in participating in the next workshop in October, joining the community, or would like to pair with other organisations doing similar work, please contact email@example.com or visit the #form-builders channel in the cross-government Slack.
Correction: The blog originally stated that GDS did not review existing form builders before building the extremely vulnerable person service. This has been amended to clarify what solutions were evaluated.