This article featured in Government Computing on 11 January 2018
Ofsted inspectors carry out hundreds of visits to schools and agencies every week and we want to enable them to do their work digitally.
Although some inspection work is already done electronically, many inspectors still rely on ink and paper to gather information, capture evidence in-the-field, and to write up reports, which then have to be sent to the office to be scanned and converted into PDF documents.
This isn’t making the best use of available technology during either the inspection process or in the storage and retrieval of data.
Our challenge is to modernise our systems so they take full advantage of 21st Century innovations. And the first phase of the solution is to implement electronic evidence gathering (EEG).
This is a complex task for an organisation that employs around 800 inspectors and contracts another 2,500, backed up by 1,000 support staff.
The nature of inspection means it is not simply a case of recording quantitative data. A visit may involve a team of inspectors and last for days or even weeks, encompassing a range of observations, interviews and qualitative information gathered from a wide variety of sources.
The inspectors must triangulate all that information to reach a judgement and draft their report. The outcome is then passed back to Ofsted, where further quality assurance checks and reviews are carried out before the report is finalised and the inspection evidence stored in the event of a legal challenge or complaint.
Moving to a fully electronic system for gathering and storing evidence will make it easier and less time consuming to provide insights from across our inspections to the Department for Education, and ultimately to feed into government policy and decision making.
We knew this was a project where we could make an important difference quickly, and from an early stage we wanted to use it as a ‘digital exemplar’ to demonstrate potential new ways of working.
It was not just about technology, but also about culture, so it was important to discuss the issues with staff. We spoke to hundreds of inspectors at events and conferences, to identify their individual needs and raise potential problems.
Initially, we used OneNote to give people a feel for how technology could aide their work. Then we took our plans to the Government’s Digital Marketplaceto find an external supplier with the expertise to help take the project to the next stage.
Rainmaker joined us in January 2017 to work on the discovery phase, building on previous research and gathering new information by shadowing inspectors in the field, talking to groups and individuals and looking at the technology landscape of the organisation.
That allowed us to evolve a working prototype, using Microsoft Office 365 and related products including PowerApps, Flow and SharePoint.
Within a few weeks we were able to go out and show our people the first version of the prototype. Crucially, that gave our users a real sense of how they might use software to complete priority tasks, including gathering, tagging, sorting and collating evidence to produce reports.
It was also important for us to consider how the technology would be used in the field, given that the phones and laptops used by staff inspectors might be different from those used by contract inspectors. One of the challenges is to make sure they all get access to the system.
More recently, we have also been experimenting with complementary software tools that can convert handwriting and audio to text, because we recognise individual inspectors will still have their own preferred ways of working and it is important not to impose a one-size-fits-all solution.
We’re continuing to prototype and iterate with users, but the work we have done so far has given us a strong understanding of our needs, the problems that need to be resolved and the solutions required.
Working collaboratively with Rainmaker and our users, leveraging innovations such as ExperienceLabs, has allowed us to develop the design and functionality at pace. We know that we have still some way to go, but we are on the right track. For me, it’s great to see the proof of concept mature into a Beta product that is soon to be introduced across Ofsted.
Deborah Pollard is EEG Product Owner at Ofsted
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