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Listening to users: Moving from a paper-based process to a digital service

People accessing government services often ask themselves – why is this so complicated? Outdated legacy systems and burdensome processes make it difficult for Canadians to get access to the services they need.  The scale of the problems can be daunting, but thankfully there are multidisciplinary teams working in departments across government to improve how these services are delivered. In this series, we’ll be highlighting the work of these teams, and showing what good looks like in digital service delivery. 

In today’s feature, we sat down with Emma MacNeil from the Canadian Firearms Digital Services Solution (CFDSS) team – part of the Canadian Firearms Program (CFP) at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). She talks about her team’s work and how they applied a user-centred approach to convert a paper-based process to an end-to-end digital service.

Untangling an acronym: CFDSS and the work they do 

The Canadian Firearms Digital Services Solution (CFDSS) team is a small but mighty group in the RCMP, who have been working to design a digital solution to a paper-based problem: applying for a Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL), which is required to possess or acquire firearms in Canada. 

The CFDSS is a multidisciplinary team, made up of developers, analysts, strategists, a scrum master, a product owner, and a project sponsor. They’ve worked to transform a process that was entirely paper based (the paper application form needed to be filled in and submitted by mail), to one that can be conducted online from end-to-end. 

Paper forms, stamps and an envelope (the before)

Up until November 14, 2022, Canadians could only apply for a PAL through a paper-based, mail-in application form. This manual process stretched resources, contributing to longer processing times, and reduced satisfaction of some clients. Employees had to capture all the data from these application forms by hand. Up to 40% of the forms were incomplete or had errors, requiring even more burdensome back-and-forth communication with the applicant, all completed by paper-based mail (imagine the delays!). 

The  Canadian Firearms Program (CFP) wanted to improve the user experience and meet people’s needs by developing a new online application for the PAL that was intuitive and user-friendly. The new online process reflects stringent security requirements while saving time and effort through reducing manual processing and application errors or omissions.  

Listening to, learning from, and testing with users

To develop the online application, the team put users at the centre of their work by: 

  • Engaging users in the design process by speaking directly with people who applied for a PAL in the past;
  • Conducting usability sessions with prototypes of the new online service;
  • Listening to and learning from employees at the CFP’s Contact Centre who regularly field questions from people applying for a PAL.

The project began with a review of existing user research (including common application errors, top questions from the contact centre, and past program evaluations). Taking a peek behind the curtain, the team summarized key problems faced by applicants, processing agents, and the Contact Centre. This was followed by user interviews to gather more information about the end-to-end experience of applying for a PAL. 

When this initial research was complete, the team developed a prototype in order to test a new PAL online application form with Canadians. Working with the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), the team prioritized key areas of the application where users would be most likely to struggle, and these tasks were chosen to be tested in usability sessions with users. With consideration given to the Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) conducted by the CFP, the team developed recruitment criteria to ensure diverse participants in the usability sessions. They also worked with CDS to offer compensation for the usability sessions, resulting in a better response rate and increased diversity of participants. 

The usability test used a clickable prototype, which allowed users to click through screens but not enter any content, and participants were asked to talk through their thinking as they completed each task. The team conducted a total of 8 usability tests (7 English, 1 French) between March 28 and April 8, 2022. The results of the testing sessions identified various usability issues that made the process more difficult to complete, and resulted in 22 recommendations for improvement. By testing the online application prototype with users, the team captured a number of usability issues early on, enabling them to make improvements to the form before it was released to the public. 

What we can learn from people who choose not to use our service

We all know the value of designing with users of our services, but what about the people who choose not to use them? The CFDSS team wanted to learn more about the reasons people chose to use a paper application, when an online version also existed. 

To learn about this hesitancy, they ran a survey with users of other CFP services who had chosen the paper process over online to provide insights on their motivations and behaviours. This guided the CFDSS team towards a design that responded to concerns around security and privacy and other friction points, with the goal of leading to more widespread adoption, user satisfaction, and reduced strain on the people working to process applications.

Digital from end- to-end (streamlined, but responsible)

Following the usability testing sessions, the team developed an end-to-end digital application process. A combination of automated error checks within the online application as well as automated integration with applicant references and photo guarantors results in applicants receiving automated updates and reducing the need for client follow-ups. Often, digital service delivery means quicker and easier to access services. However, given the strict security requirements of the PAL program, the emphasis is not on speed but on reducing the administrative burden on both applicants and the employees who process the applications. 

This new user-centred online form has modernized the CFP’s systems and processes to increase process efficiency and effectiveness. This work has better informed digital transformation discussions in the CFP around future releases of online services, including firearm licensing applications for businesses and carriers, as well as designing a safety training portal for instructors (in collaboration with Code for Canada). The team has also established feedback loops to get input on how the online application can be improved. Feedback from calls from applicants, trends in application errors, user surveys, and learnings from training new processing agents are regularly routed to the team, who use them to prioritize service improvement work. 

Some parting words of wisdom 

Besides listening to, learning from, and testing with users to improve its service, the team credits having a senior leader championing their work as a key condition for success. It’s fundamental to have a sponsor in senior leadership to create space for the team to experiment and learn, and to clearly articulate the value and impact of the work. The project sponsor for the RCMP is a consistent supporter, and pushed for the team to operate in an agile, multidisciplinary environment from the very start. 

Are you a public servant working on improving services for people in Canada? Share your story with us!