Wrapping up discovery

Identifying the cause rather than the symptoms of waiting lists


This is the second blog in a series about digital transformation within our Family Tracing service. If you’ve not heard about this project, you can read about it here.

When that was written, we were in the last week of discovery and beginning to piece together everything we’d learnt. Fast forward a week, we’ve tied our insights together and narrowed our focus in preparation for Alpha.

This post is all about our discovery: what we did, what we found, and what we‘re doing next.

What we did

We didn’t want to spend a long time on discovery.

The British Red Cross does a lot of really high quality research. The tracing service have already done some essential work with our service users, staff, volunteers and key players, such as the Home Office, to identify areas for improvement. Our discovery phase was 3 weeks of unifying that work by reading, listening and watching so that we can decide which area to focus on.

After reading and unifying all the reports, memos and briefs, we went out and interviewed experts from across the service: senior management, data and technology specialists, tracing specialists, branch managers, co-ordinators and volunteer caseworkers. We asked them talk through the service from their perspective and show us what was working at what needed to change.

What we didn’t do

One thing that is important to acknowledge is the people we didn’t talk to.

  • Services outside of London — operations managers and national data managers were a great resource in understanding how the issues vary across the regions, but we have only been able to shadow London tracing services so far, but we’re looking forward to travelling to services further afield during alpha.
  • Key players outside the service — such as the interpreters who translate our interviews, or the social workers, legal advisors and solicitors who are referring clients to us. These people stand on the sidelines most of the time, but are the lens through which a client experiences our service.
  • Service users — I mentioned in our last post that we made a conscious decision not to speak to people with lived experience of tracing until we have a more focussed scope and can ensure their contribution will be impactful. This was the right decision, but it is important to note.

No discovery is perfect. The alpha phase will be our chance to test our assumptions that have come up through discovery. That will mean travelling across the UK, testing designs with the people who will use them, making up for what we might have missed so far.

What we found

We found a service that looked a little like this:

Image of a timeline. Left to right: Referring, booking appointments, interviewing, recording info, searching, updating.

By following this process, the team are reuniting families and changing lives. But staff and volunteers are getting the feeling that the effort to success ratio could be better.

“I’ve been here 5 years, and even if you reunite just one person with their family, it’s worth it…but often it’s time intensive with low results”

- Volunteer caseworker

At each stage of the process there are things we could do better and too many opportunities to mention. But the question was where to start. These were the key things we learnt.

A lot of our problems are symptoms of another problem.

Demand is growing and putting pressure on our systems and processes. How we book appointments, record information, search for family and keep on top of updates are all made harder as the waitlist grows.

But the bulk of our problems come from the struggle to respond to ‘failure demand’ — “the demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the client”. This is different to responding to ‘value demand’, which is what the service aims to deliver.

An example is the appointments process in London: there is a 3 month waiting list for an appointment. Instead of booking an appointment 3 months in advance that the client might struggle to remember, the caseworker creates a task for themselves to call the client back in a few months, giving them a more manageable 2 weeks notice. This extra workload is responding to the demand of the waitlist itself.

A second example is our case registry function. This is when national caseworkers check case records before they are submitted, checking for errors and inconsistencies. These errors and inconsistencies are a result of local caseworkers having to type up hand written notes multiple times, into a complex system. Volunteers and staff want to take the time to become really skilled at using these systems, but that never gets prioritised while there is a list of clients waiting to be seen.

To build a more sustainable service we ought to be building tools that prevent failure demand, rather than responding to it.

“Lots of the time, they come to the interview and don’t know why they are there”

I recently received a letter saying I should go for a smear test. On that letter it told me what to expect, what not to expect and how to prepare. When I arrived and was asked to take off my jeans, I wasn’t surprised.

In our family tracing service, 75% of our clients come via referral. As with a smear test invitation, the point of referral is a huge opportunity to give clients the information they need to work out if the service is right for them. But, instead, this all happens in the interview itself, where clients often discover that:

  • The security risks are too high for them to open a trace
  • they lack the information we need for us to start an active trace
  • or the time taken to process the trace means they might not get the evidence they urgently need for their asylum claim.
Image of a photo pinned to a noticeboard. The photo shows a man in red cross uniform arriving at a rural village.
This photo is on the wall of the interview room. Multiple caseworkers recalled clients seeing this photo and deciding tracing wasn’t for them. The idea of a uniformed official going to their village and asking about their family, who may be in hiding, was too big a risk. Why can’t we show clients this image sooner?

The interview is a very resource intensive part of our service. Interviews range from 1.5–3 hours, require a room, a volunteer and in most cases, an interpreter. In cases where the client is under 18 (over 60% of cases), there are two interviews instead of one, and two caseworkers must be present in each one. That’s a huge amount of resource, and that isn’t even adding in the pre and post case admin of booking the appointment, recording the information and registering their case.

But it’s not just our investment — embarking on a tracing enquiry and recounting memories from when you last had contact with your family, can be hugely traumatic.

“The trauma of the interview is unavoidable”

- Area manager

If we and the client are going to invest so much into these interviews, we want to be confident in our investment, and yet so many interviews end in some version of ‘sorry we can’t help you’.

How can we ensure that enquirers only go through the interview process if we feel confident they could benefit from it?

If we found a way to do this, and only interview the right people, would our booking systems be under so much pressure, and would caseworkers find the time to quality check their work and keep on top of updates?

We’ve decided to focus on fixing referrals

If we invested time in a sophisticated booking system before addressing whether we are booking appointments for the right people, we would end up building things to fix the symptoms, without addressing the source of our backlogs.

Plus, unlike our search functions or how we are storing and recording case information, the referral process doesn’t depend on integrating with our case management software. If we want to make impact, we need to find the space where we can build new things rather than fight against our constraints.

What’s next?

We are currently generating ideas with people from across the service on how we can empower clients and their referrers with the tools and information to decide whether the tracing service is right for them before they get added to our waitlist.

A screenshot of an ideas board made on Trello.
This is our ideas board which staff and volunteers, wherever they are in the country, can contribute to.

We will be designing and testing these ideas with users, caseworkers and referrers over the next few months.

We’ll let you know how it goes.

Interested in this project and want to know more? Send a message to @vhoughtonp or @jesscross__ on twitter.



Vicky Houghton-Price
Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

Lead Designer at Made Tech. Previously: British Red Cross, Bulb and Year Here