By Sarah Townsend, Head of Grants Policy – This article originally appeared in The Protagonist.
It’s a feeling we have all experienced when using online services. It is that feeling of frustration caused by the fact that the system is too clunky, the screen is too cluttered, we are being asked too many questions or we have had to enter data multiple times. I’m sure that people have felt that way when applying to the Research Councils for a grant and that’s something we want to tackle.
Research Councils are in the midst of a major project to redesign our grants service. This is not only a great opportunity to replace our outdated technology but we are also using the opportunity to look at the way we do grant funding across Research Councils and ask ourselves what could we do better. Where can we make things simpler? Are there ways to make our policies and processes more streamlined? We want to improve the service for applicants and other users, both internal and external.
Our current grants system – the joint electronic submission service (Je-S) – is reaching the end of its useful life and we know that researchers love it and hate it in equal measures. Ahead for its time when it was introduced, it is now like a well-worn and well-loved pair of slippers – we know that it will be a wrench for some when our new service comes online.
The good news is that the new service will enable us to deliver some really important improvements for the community such as greater interoperability with research organisations’ systems. Within the Higher Education sector there are many systems and data that, at the moment, do not communicate with each other. This means that information cannot flow through these different systems and users have to enter the same information multiple times.
The new grants service will push us farther forward by helping us achieve a more connected infrastructure and cut inefficiencies for everyone using the service. In future, we want to be able to reuse information that already exists in other systems wherever possible to reduce the amount of time applicants spend filling in a grant application. We also want to have simpler guidance and only ask for information that we actually need.
WELCOME TO THE NEW GRANTS SERVICE INTERFACE
The new grants service is being developed with user needs at the front of everyone’s minds. To give you some insight into how this works, the user research team has been finding out what users like you want the grants service to do. They have spoken to applicants, peer reviewers, panel members, research organisation administrators and Research Council staff. Then they tell the service designers what they discovered. The service designers are bringing these users’ needs to life throughout the user journey).
Moreover, whilst the grants service will be hosted on the ac.uk domain, the screens are based on the gov.uk platform. Therefore, the new grants service will look and feel a lot like this platform. If you have taxed your vehicle or shared your driving license information in the last few years, chances are you will have already used a gov.
uk service, and like applying to tax your vehicle, we expect the new grants service to be very intuitive to use. Hopefully, you will feel right at home.
Also, we have great news for applicants applying to Research Councils and Innovate UK: we are developing a single unified grants service! This means you have a very similar experience when applying to both organisations.
SO WHERE ARE WE NOW?
A panel of government digital service assessors recently reviewed the project and has given us a pass on the alpha stage. So what does that mean? During the alpha stage of the project the team built prototypes to meet some key user needs and iterated those through user feedback. They also scoped what the end-to-end service would look like.
So what’s next? Having passed this assessment the team can now progress into the beta stage. In this stage the team will extend those early prototypes into a full end-to-end prototype and test with users. Initially, this will be a private beta, which means that access will be restricted rather than available to all. The aim is to be able to run a small number of funding opportunities through the new service in 2017 and to have transitioned fully in 2018. Throughout the development we will continue to test with users. The work is done in very small chunks with continual iteration based on the feedback received. If you want to know more you can sign up to our mailing list http://eepurl.com/bXNziH and check out the information available on the RCUK website www.rcuk. ac.uk/funding/2017update.