A digital service so bad I was glad to use it

I didn’t think receiving a parking fine would be enjoyable. Until I tried to pay it.

The notice arrived in the post from West Yorkshire Police in mid September. I had been caught speeding on the motorway the previous month. The letter almost looked like spam, such were the number of different font sizes and the liberal use of colours. But spam would have tried to be convincing. It told me I could log on to a website to see the evidence, as well as providing various marketing gubbins on the importance of keeping to the speed limit.

The poor folks at West Yorkshire Camera Safety Partnership are better at enforcing speeding fines than managing web domains. I misremembered, and then mistyped the URL. safetycamerawestyorkshire.co.uk and variants on it take you to very different places compared to the correct URL: safetycameraswestyorkshire.co.uk

After accessing the site via Google, and satisfied that it was me in the car, I looked for what to do next. It didn’t say on the website. I had to find the letter instead. I had to post it back to the police with my contact details (which, you’d have thought, they already had).

Several weeks later I received another letter offering me a speed awareness course as an alternative to 3 points and a £100 fine. There were several websites to visit, depending on where and when I wished to take the course. I thought the points would have a bigger affect on my future behaviour so had to . . . do nothing at all.

In early December I received a third letter inviting me to pay the fine via a Ministry of Justice payment service hosted on direct.gov.uk. It was nice to return to my old friend — not all of the past was bad — and I could use the service first time and unaided. I then had to post my licence back to West Yorkshire, and a separate form providing the payment reference from direct.gov. Unfortunately the wording on the letter didn’t match the wording on the direct.gov receipt, presenting opportunity for error.

During this now 3 month process, I had moved house, and told DVLA hoping it might avoid further visits back to my old flat. That service started on gov.uk and finished on direct.gov. But for struggling to find my Government Gateway ID, it was straightforward.

Unfortunately the process coincided meaning that my licence was returned to me (with someone intervening to cover the computer-typed label with a handwritten note of my new address). I was then invited to post my new licence back to the authority within 7 days. On Christmas Eve. I have now submitted my licence and look forward to its return so that I might then send it to my long-suffering insurance company as proof that they can increase the premium, presumably. I expect to receive it some four months after the offence.

I have little doubt that West Yorkshire Police has made a profit through the venture. And no doubt it could have made more. Three public bodies, three different websites, four outbound letters, eight pieces of post in total. I submitted an FOI to find out the cost of this. Unsurprisingly, it couldn't be provided.

And here are five challenges for redesigning the service:

1. West Yorkshire Police has higher priorities. I suspect no senior manager will be held accountable for a slow, inefficient money-making service

2. Left to its own devices, West Yorkshire Police would probably redesign the service inefficiently, either relying on contractors to build a unique service or purchasing a proprietary service

3. The opportunities to improve the service are only incremental. West Yorkshire Police could redesign its part of the service but lacks control over payments or licensing issues (and, it appears, speed awareness courses)

4. Probably only the MOJ has the convening power to bring together its payment service, the DVLA’s licencing service and a police force’s processes. But to do so across 42 police forces would be a considerable hassle

5. The current incentives government digital services prize redesigning existing high volume, central government services. The redesign of speeding fines is probably low on attractiveness and achievability for the MOJ — although of all departments it’s probably best placed to make progress