You wouldn’t do this to a dog…

Confession: I know rather more about online government transactions as a theoretician than a real user. I don’t actually need or use very many of them myself, in anger. Car tax, obviously. I renew passport and driving licence every few years when they need renewing. I self-assess my taxes annually. I pay quarterly VAT. But that’s about it, really. No benefits. No protracted health or disability transactions. Very ordinary.

I have kids, and I have dogs, though. They both need feeding. The dogs, all the bloody time—with the kids, let’s focus on school meals for the purposes of this post. Coincidentally, my online activities to manage both of these have a very similar frequency—about six times a year. Let’s compare them, and look at the online pet food store first.

How do I know when to pay? Well, when the food bucket looks a bit low. Who do I pay? I always use the same supplier, but strange as it may sound, I have no idea what they’re called. Seriously. I don’t need to. I just search my email for the brand name of the dog food, find any old order email, follow any old link within the email, and I’m there.

Once there, I click on the picture of the food bag, type ‘2’ for two bags, click on the cart, tell them to please use my usual credit card and address, and… that’s it. One minute. Information re-entry: virtually none. Risk of incorrect personal information: none. Time and effort for supplier in doing their bit: twice the square root of f*** all.

Now. Paying for school meals. How do I know when to pay? Oh, easy. I’ll find a small slip in one of the boys’ school bags telling me that the payments are overdue. Not due: overdue. Nice little slip, it is. Mostly handwritten, with their names and other details filled in for me. And two amounts: the “pay immediately” one that ensures they’ll be fed tomorrow, and the “pay rest of half-term” amount. All nicely hand-calculated. And then an invitation* to go online and settle up. [*see update below this post]

Do it online? This can’t be bad, surely? Oh yes it can.

There’s no URL on the slip, but experience tells me that Googling for “surrey school meals” does the job. And here we are at the site. There’s a box for me to fill in a school reference code. I vaguely remember when they introduced this system that they went to great trouble to send out letters with this code. Which we promptly lost. But no matter, because you can just pick the school from the drop-down menu. Well, you have to find the right menu first, of course. Different types of schools have different menus. And there’s no handy scripting that means typing the first letters of the school gets you there faster.

You find the school, and now you enter the children’s names on a blank form. They don’t remember the names from the last transaction. In fact they don’t remember ANYTHING. Then the payment bit. (It’s up to me to put in the amounts myself, by the way, and transcribe them correctly from the slip. And to divide the total on the slip by the number of children to get the right amount per line. Dear Lord Almighty, give me strength.)

Oh dear. It’s the loosest, shabbiest, experience imaginable. It’s like time-travel. Suddenly it’s 1998 all over again and we’re over to RBS WorldPay to “handle the transaction”. That’s it: hands washed. You and your business are nothing to do with us now. Off you go. Tell WorldPay everything about yourself again, from scratch.

And six times a year, I faithfully type out my full credit card details and address, having already repeated the names and school of my children. This is utter rubbish. A classic example of a government transaction that nobody seems to care about. Where even the rational benefits of reducing error and saving someone in the school the trouble of filling in all those little handwritten slips seem to count for absolutely nothing.

Why is it so bad? It’s bad at at least three levels: interaction design, information management, and use of readily-available convenience tools.

Let’s pick these off: the site design is, to my semi-tutored eye, shoddy. It’s packed with text, trying desperately to explain what it’s about, instead of just getting to the money shot: doing the bloody transaction. Note how links like this bend over backwards to tell you the service is there to make life easier and explain in hideous, painful (and unnecessary) detail how every little bit works, but note also what link isn’t on the page–that’s right: the transaction itself. Instead, you’ve got a Contact Centre link where you might expect to see the actual transaction, cueing you to get on the phone and talk to someone. Bonkers! (And drop that school reference code thingy while you’re at it. Unless you know that people have been remembering them, and using them as a matter of course.)

On the information management bit, there’s some strange stuff going on. I can see that someone somewhere is no doubt wary of holding personal data about me on a Council system. That would mean it could be left on a memory stick or CD, to subsequent shame all round. But they must be keeping some kind of personal record: the school are being told that these particular children have been paid for, so to go to these baroque lengths to pretend each time that they’ve never heard of me before is just insane.

I stress that I DO NOT WANT a MyCouncil-type personal online account just to pay for school meals (which is all I do with Surrey online). You don’t have to jump to some vastly over-engineered general solution just to make one particular interaction easier. Really, you don’t. Go back and look at the dogfood store experience again if you don’t believe me. I don’t think I’m also registered with them to receive handy hints on how to compost the resulting dogshit, now am I?

But there are a bunch of opportunities where a bit more intelligent information management design could have been used to make this one easier, less error-prone, more automated and just better.

And lastly, there are simple tools available to do this. Do I really need to enter all that information afresh each time? Do you, Surrey, really need to bang on about how crafty you are in avoiding holding any of my credit card details yourself? (Not that I particularly mind you doing so. Remember, I let some company I don’t even know the name of do this. Out there in the real world.) Have you heard of PayPal, for example? Or Direct Debits? Strangely enough, people who rely on online commerce to make a living have thought of some of these problems before, and built ways around them.

I’m being harsh, I know. Fixing these things would cost money. Not much, but some. And the money to fix them wouldn’t be connected by any easily-identifiable lever to the savings made in the school office. Even trying to define that sort of connection via an internal business case would cost more in consultancy fees than actually implementing a simple site refresh and the addition of better payment functions, I suspect.

So it stays up there—yet another orphaned bastard child of an e-government movement that stubbornly refuses to stop looking utterly crap.


Update: 24 October 2012
Scene: The School Office

Yet another slip arrived, this time asking for four quid to be taken in tomorrow morning [yesterday’s underlined message].

So I took it in. And said…

PC: Here’s four quid for you. I got your slip yesterday.

School Sec: Thanks

PC: The slip doesn’t mention an online payment option any more.

SS: It hasn’t changed.

PC: Well, it has. It used to say “you can pay online”. Now it doesn’t. We seem to be going backwards.

SS: It hasn’t changed. Anyway, lots of people pay online.

PC: That’s great. But people who are new to the process won’t know about the option. And people like me, who are a bit literal about things, will think you’ve stopped offering the service and that continuing to pay online may end up with their money going into a black hole somewhere. You’ll end up getting more people turning up at this window with four quid, and lots of avoidable checking.

SS: Thank you. [Window starts to slide shut]

PC: You will change the slip then to reinstate the stuff about paying online?

SS: [Thin smile of resistance to change]

[The window closes, firmly]


Update: 15 March 2013

Yet another hand-completed slip arrives. Like all the recent ones, it omits any reference to an online payment option. In goes my formal letter of complaint, asking for a written explanation of this strange stance.

Watch this space.


  1. I feel your pain. The only thing worse is trying to pay for festival tickets at 9.20 am with 3 minutes left on the ticker and then you get the Verified By Visa trainwreck.

    Paypal is lovely. As is Amazon One-click.

  2. […] You wouldn’t do this to a dog… – honestlyreal And six times a year, I faithfully type out my full credit card details and address, having already repeated the names and school of my children. This is utter rubbish. A classic example of a government transaction that nobody seems to care about. Where even the rational benefits of reducing error and saving someone in the school the trouble of filling in all those little handwritten slips seem to count for absolutely nothing.[…] So it stays up there—yet another orphaned bastard child of an e-government movement that stubbornly refuses to stop looking utterly crap. […]

  3. I think you’re meant to print out the form, fill it in using your best cursive script, staple a cheque to the top and then send it to one of the many Freepost addresses for the council that are easy to find online.

    Or am I missing something?

  4. I use ParentPay for Brighton & Hove school meals. An exercise in pain. I can only assume they were a lowest bidder of some sort.

  5. Down in West Dorset we have a great little company where once signed in, I can see menu choices for the next few weeks. Click to choose and then pay by PayPal at the end. Done.

    And the food is amongst the best in the country. Maybe it’s because Surrey is a deprived area? Ah…

  6. Love your account.
    Not just the blow-by-blow details of how awful the online experience clearly is, but the emotional response it creates in the ‘user’ (that’s what their web UI designers would call you, if they actually employed any, which I doubt)

    And the other comments here reflect not only similar experiences, but references to providers who do this well.

    Together, it provides an ideal source of insight to help fix your customer experience. Except that they don’t care. So they won’t look.
    And that’s why the public sector is what it is.

  7. I take no delight whatsoever in returning the “I’ve paid online” signed cutout paper slip back to school after my WisePay transaction is complete. The irony oozes.

  8. I’m going to be contrary on this. Some bloke (initials PC) taught be to look beyond just the obvious.

    Whilst without doubt the process for ordering and paying for school meals could be improved, it is likely to be WAY down the priority list for any school.

    Having been through the process of choosing a supplier for meals at the school where I’m a governor, the priority is food quality, food quality and food quality. Price comes into it but suppliers are not too far off what is needed. We found the best quality was from a local and small school consortium. Online ordering and payment systems simply didn’t come into it. Expecting that would have led us down the path of a national supplier who we were desperate to be rid of.

    Once we’ve sorted out a few more issues at the school, like a reliable email system, website and ensuring that teachers get professional development and support, that we have enough spaces to accommodate growing numbers of children then we’ll get around to sorting out an online payment system.

    Unless of course a kind and knowledgeable parent shows us a simple to use & configure, and cost effective system that we can use.

  9. It’s a very fair comment Shane. I do get the point about priority. In tight circumstances, things have to be very important to happen at all.

    My beef here is two-fold. Firstly, and immediately, that a school has decided to drop reference on the paper forms to an online option. I can only assume (I’m trying to find out for sure) that they find some part of the administration and reconciliation of the online service to be unattractive, and prefer to process paper. Not an unusual stance, of course, but given the existence of online payment, it’s pretty irresponsible to try and hide it.

    More fundamentally, I see the function “get money from a parent to a school in an orderly manner” to be precisely the type of off-the-shelf commodity that digital services should excel in. It shouldn’t be for the school to have to invent some means of securing, recording and allocating the payment. The County have made some steps towards this, and I look forward to a replacement system coming soon. But going with the theme of “small pieces, loosely joined”, I see a great case for making this particular small piece a priority in itself, whether it’s to fund school meals, trips, uniforms or anything else.

  10. I pay school meals termly to halve the horror of payments (ParentPay – oh the horror!). they managed to mess up, sending one set of dinner money to the After school club (which we don’t use). First I heard of it was an email notifying me that the meals account was in arrears. Can I talk to a human to sort it out? No chance, I need to input my details *yet again* and tick various menus and boxes to inform them of their error. Any assurance that it’s being dealt with? That would also be a “no”, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement email. I have lost an afternoon’s work trying to sort out a mess they made, so my child can continue to eat food I’ve paid for already. I hate writing cheques, but somehow I hate this more…

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