Companies House aims for 100% digital

Written by Sam Trendall on 11 January 2019 in Features
Features

The agency's director of digital tells PublicTechnology how the UK company register is using data science, agile methods – and eyeball tracking – in its transformation journey

Credit: Companies House

If you have an internet connection and £12 in your Paypal account, you could become one of the roughly 1,300 people who will today incorporate a company in the UK.

Your new business would join a total of four million that are registered with Companies House, which is responsible, among other things, for incorporating and dissolving companies, and publishing public records of firms’ annual financial performance and directorial appointments. 

Online company registration is one of growing number of examples of how the government agency is increasingly serving businesses, and the wider citizenry, in a digital way.

Indeed, Ross Maude (pictured above), who joined Companies House in September as director of digital, wants every single one of the services provided by the registrar to offer users a “digital journey”.

We asked him to tell us more about the path he intends to take to get to that goal.

 

PublicTechnology: How would you characterise Companies House’s digitisation efforts to date, and how close are you to where you would ultimately like to get to?
Ross Maude: Companies House has done a great job of digitising its services already, we have been able to take complex legislative changes and develop systems that people understand. This means our register can be as up to date as possible. We have the ability now to do 98% of transactions by volume via a digital journey. We’ve made great strides in terms of digitising our services, but I think we’re going to get to a place where all transactions we’re required to do are digitised. And are digitised perhaps on slightly different technologies to the ones that we’ve used previously.

What are some of the key achievements of digital transformation work that has taken place so far?
The really big one for me is the CHS (Companies House Search) service. The purpose of the register is to provide information to those who deal with UK companies and this service make it easier than ever.  There are 2.2 billion searches a year going across the platform. It was built as a cloud-native application; making use of modern platforms and technologies. It’s really performant, it’s open data and it’s a fantastic service. 

"Rather than digitising all our current services, we look at how we make sure the services that we’re offering are the right mix and digitising those."

What are some of the services you plan to digitise – or new digital services you might create – in the coming months?
Our intent is to digitise every single one of our services; to have a digital journey to them. Whatever services we offer, we want to make sure we have a digital option. There may be some edge cases where that’s not possible, but our intention is to close that gap as fast as possible to make sure everything can be transacted digitally.

Will work follow a clearly delineated strategy, or will projects take place on a more ad hoc basis?
We are building up our digital strategy at the moment and we’ll definitely have a strategy which is aligned to the government’s priorities including the Industrial Strategy as well as our business transformation. Companies House is taking a very forward-thinking approach to how we deliver our services over the next three to four years and building on that digitally is an essential part of that. As part of our digital function, we want to make sure that our strategy for delivery of services meets the aspirational goals of the business. However, it has to be executable – it can’t just be pie in the sky stuff. It has to be something that we can deliver with good value for money around it. All of this adds up to us being able to deliver innovative services as part of our larger strategic transformation plan. So definitely not an ad-hoc approach!

Describe in brief the process of how you go about creating digital services?
We start with user need; that’s absolutely where we start the design of our services and that’s both internal and external services; so not just about the externally facing customers. It’s also about how we work with our internal operational delivery teams to make sure that the services being built are fit for everyone to use in the most efficient way. We’ve got a really good product team here at Companies House. We’ve got a state-of-the-art user analysis lab where we can bring in cohorts of users with different needs. We’ve got things like eyeball-tracking software, so we can watch how people interact with our services, and we’ve got people who are dedicated to measuring the performance of our services in terms of how successful the customer journey is. Once we have built up a really good user needs analysis, we run it through several iterations. They then go through the standard build methodology which is agile here. We have discovery, alpha, beta and then live phases and we have agile iterations using our ‘scrum’ teams to develop the services against our enterprise architecture design. Through that process and through the stage gates, we make sure there are value for money checks, it’s fit for purpose and that we’re meeting user needs. We’ve got really good capability at Companies House in terms of automated testing. We’ve got automated test coverage for our platforms, which means we can iterate faster because we’re not spending weeks doing manual effort to test. We’re able to iterate our regression testing very quickly using automated tooling. We are really big adopters of DevOps practices in terms of culture technologies, toolsets and process change and we’re absolutely committed to being able to deliver and release iterated improvements to our services.

How closely does the digital team at Companies House work with colleagues in operations and delivery?
We work closely with them and make sure that their users are involved. More recently there has been more of a focus on the external customers. We’re making sure in this part of the transformation that our internal systems are being improved and transformed as much as the externally-facing ones have. We will also be changing our structure to fully embed and support digital and operational delivery working together.

Is the ultimate goal to conduct all services – or at least as great a percentage as possible – digitally?
Absolutely. Our intention is to make sure 100% of the services that we offer have a digital journey to them; that’s our aspirational goal. There might be some edge cases where it might not possible due to geographic restrictions for different users of our services and we have to understand more about this as part of our user service assessments. It’s a really ambitious thing to do because there are a lot of services and not all of them are under our control. One of the things around transformation that I think is important is that, rather than digitising all our current services, we look at how we make sure the services that we’re offering are the right mix and digitising those. That’s the better way of getting where we need to rather than taking 470-odd transactions and digitising those because that might not be the fastest way of getting where we need to get to and might be the least efficient as well. It’s about focusing on the outcome our users need. That outcome is to be able to register and operate their businesses in compliance with the law as easily as possible. Whatever we can do to make that happen is really important.

"We want to make sure that our strategy for delivery of services meets the aspirational goals of the business. However, it has to be executable – it can’t just be pie in the sky stuff."

To what extent is Companies House gathering and analysing data on service use and performance? How might this analysis impact future strategy and programmes?
We have interaction designers, performance analysts, data science and user need groups as well as user communities that we interact with. We have user analysis labs, including one here at Companies House, and we lease them in other cities to ensure that we access more than local resources. I think the honest answer is that gathering and analysing data on services is absolutely fundamental to how we design, manage and improve the services we have here at Companies House. Doing anything but that wouldn’t be the best way of delivering those services. 

What would you like to have achieved by the end of 2019?
I would have liked to get the digital strategy signed off with an associated implementation plan, and be well underway to delivering the digital transformation of Companies House.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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