The government’s plans for EU Settlement post-Brexit have been contentious, largely because of a lack of faith in Whitehall to protect EU citizens that may have been legally living in the UK for years. This is especially true given the Home Office’s recent handling of the Windrush Generation, which saw UK citizens that have been living here for decades, deported because they didn’t have what the government considered appropriate documentation.
As such, a lot of attention has been paid to the government’s online EU Settlement Scheme, which has been in the second phase of private beta since November last year. Today the government launches its first public beta of the app, which is open to resident EU citizens and family members with a valid passport as a national of that EU country and to their non-EU citizen family members with a biometric residence card.
Despite the fact that the government has been unable to launch the app on Apple smart devices, and has had to rely on Android solely, the government today released broadly positive findings from its private beta phase.
It claims that close to the 30,000 applications received over 51 days, most were either granted settled status or pre-settled status. No cases were refused.
Of the 2,776 cases awaiting a decision, the majority were incomplete or awaiting further evidence.
A key part of the private beta included testing of the full end-to-end online application process, specifically how the Home Office EU Exit: ID Document Check app performed as part of the process. The Home Office states that 90% of applications successfully validated their identity via the app, without needing to submit their identity document to the department for manual verification.
A survey was voluntarily taken by 1,330 private beta applicants. Of those taking the survey, 77% said that it was “very or fairly easy” to use. Some 70% agreed that the application form was quicker than expected to complete and a further 13% neither agreed nor disagreed that this was so.
In total, 80% of applicants would either speak highly or give a neutral response about the application process if asked, the Home Office said.
The feedback also found that most applicants believed that the “information they had seen or received improved their understanding of the EU Settlement Scheme: 79% agreed, while 15% neither agreed nor disagreed”.
The Home Office also worked with Local Authorities to put in place 12 locations where applicants could access and android device loaded with the identity verification app. A total of 220 appointments were conducted, with uptake increasing over the weeks that PB2 operated (since 1st November 2018).
Initial findings highlighted the importance of “clear communications around the role of this service”, the Home Office said, and clearer communication will be provided going forward.
However, the private beta phase was not without its problems. The Home Office has said that when the scheme is fully opened by 30 March 2019, there will be multiple ways that an applicant can verify their identity - the app will be an option, but alternatives will include the applicant sending their document to the Home Office or visiting a local ‘chip check’ service.
However, some users did experience difficult getting their passport chip verified using the app. The government said:
“Whilst the app performed well in PB2 across a wide range of devices, there were users who experienced difficulty when reading their passport chip and we are taking steps to improve the guidance and support available to applicants.
“Additional help text on using the app has been added to application screens, including more prominent messaging to applicants to call the Settlement Resolution Centre should they encounter technical difficulty. Experienced call handlers have received additional training to support callers through this process.
“The Home Office is also producing a short video to demonstrate how to use the app.”
In addition, there were occasions when technical difficulties meant that the government had to fall back on manual processes. The Home Office said:
“On two occasions during PB2, there was a technical disruption preventing HMRC data being returned to applicants, and on one occasion this resulted in the service being temporarily suspended.
“Around 380 applicants were impacted, they were contacted by UKVI and checks against HMRC and DWP data were conducted manually by caseworkers. A save and return function has now been implemented as a safeguard against future disruption of this nature.”
Thus far, the government provided feedback is broadly positive. That being said, the Home Office has not provided full access to the survey results, and as a result, we are very much relying on the information we are being given. So much is at stake with this service. Whilst the outcome of Brexit is still very much up in the air, EU citizens living in the UK are one group of people the most likely to be affected. A lot is at stake for the Home Office to get this right and this is a prime example of where a digital public service needs to consider compassion and empathy as part of its outcomes, not just the process itself.