Five years ago, Rural Payments Wales were given a challenge – To move from a completely bilingual paper-based system for agricultural subsidy payments to a wholly bilingual online system by 2016.
There were so many reasons for the project to fail. Our Minister at the time may have been confident, but the farming community were sceptical and Welsh Government colleagues even more so. The target was labelled ‘unrealistic’ and I was told that the farming community would never accept online services.
And yet, in 2016 Rural Payments Wales became the first country in the UK to achieve 100% online direct subsidy payments and maintained that record in 2017.
So, how did we achieve the impossible?
- A clear vision
Firstly, the arguments for transforming paper based applications were compelling. The complexity of EC regulations were leading to ever longer and more complex forms. Application packs were so weighty, postal workers struggled to stuff them through letter boxes. Interpreting the rules and completing the application correctly required the skills of a lawyer. Many farmers did not dare attempt the task without the help of an agent or their farming union. Back at the Welsh Government, the process of scanning over 18,000 applications was a mammoth undertaking, requiring several seasonal staff to work through a mountain of paperwork. I knew that a well designed bilingual online application service could mitigate a lot of this complexity – resulting in quicker, simpler applications for farmers and a more efficient, streamlined operation. Such a clear payoff created the drive, determination and commitment to silence the naysayers.
- A comprehensive 5 year plan
An online service for customers was only the tip of the iceberg. We needed to fundamentally change the way we did business. The existing back-end processing system would fully integrate with the web based functionality. It meant a staff restructure; moving our resources from processing to support roles. It included a new virtual contact centre with staff able to view customer applications remotely and in real time and answer queries by online messaging. We made key decisions early and stood by them. Procrastination was not an option as we needed to continue to pay farmers on time and adhere to strict EC timescales.
- An agile approach
Having said that, not everything ran smoothly. There were plenty of unforeseen bumps along the way. The agile approach of introducing functionality incrementally allowed us to change direction quickly when needed. For example, the Ministers decision to implement a regional payment system for CAP Reform was overturned by a judicial review, just a few short months before the application window opened, necessitated incorporating a completely different payment model.
- Early stakeholder engagement
We spoke to stakeholders from the programme outset. This was key to the success of the online service. We understood the huge role and influence that agents and farming unions have within the farming community and made sure that the online service was moulded around the farmers needs and requirements as well as their own. This early engagement led to glowing press reports at the online application launch, with farming unions and agents quick to praise the service.
- Make sure no-one is left behind
Not everyone has the inclination or ability to use online services, no matter how brilliant their design. There has to be appropriate support in place to achieve wholly online services. We held over 1,600 bilingual digital assistant appointments in 2016 – that is one to one tuition at a local Welsh Government office. But, research shows that once people have made the switch to online, they rarely look back.
So, those are a few reflections on the last 5 years. There have been sweat, tears and headaches – but we achieved the impossible. Surely, there is nothing that cannot be achieved if we put our minds to it.
Post by, Anthony Pritchard, Rural Payments Wales, Welsh Government.