A very brief history of online form development - Applying for Nationality


In this post I explore how the web has grown and evolved with a particular focus on online forms. In particular, one form - the forms to apply for Nationality. How has the internet and easier availability of information and online forms changed how Governments and companies interact with their audiences? What does that mean for us as web developers?

First, a quick question...

Q. What do Ireland and Canada have in common in 2016?
A. Due to Brexit and Trump votes, their respective immigration websites have both recently buckled under the weight of users trying to find out more about how to become an Irish or Canadian citizen.

The early part of my digital career was spent working for the UK Home Office and Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND). I was a part of the team responsible for developing the first content managed IND website, which replaced the original site shown here.


Immigration and Nationality Directorate website

Image: Home Office, taken from August 16, 2000


Contrast this then with the content managed site that I worked on:


Immigration and Nationality Directorate website

Image: Web Archive


It is not hard to see how the site rapidly evolved from something basic, to something we would now recognise today.

Getting the application forms online

The simplest way to put the forms online was to digitise the printed versions to .pdf versions. It may not sound revolutionary in 2016, but in the early 2000s - and for the UK Government - it was.

I managed to track down the office where the forms were printed - a side street off Horseferry Road near Millbank. It took me about five minutes to explain what I needed. The printers were already skilled in the digital publishing software Quark, so it wasn’t too much effort for them to digitally scan the original versions and re-create the forms so they could be exported to .pdf. As it turns out, the technology had been there for years, it was just no-one had ever created the forms as formal .pdfs.

So the result of my work came down to CD-rom which I manually carried back to the Croydon office. Whilst email was up and working then, I don’t think the Government Secure Intranet (GSI) email exchange would have coped with the file size attachments!

Applying for nationality - NOT a quick question!

Looking back at the history of passports - the first ones were issued during WW1.

And during the research phase of this article, I came across the archive of naturalisation data from the national archives. Fascinating to see that historic nationality application form data has become a national archive. Does that mean then that in 200 years time my passport application data will be available for my great great grandchildren to read?!

For most of the 1900s, the application form was printed and distributed by the Home Office. The application process was then elongated by the fact that the applicant first had to get hold of the correct form through which to apply.

Its interesting to consider (perhaps in another forum) just how pre-internet standards allowed for Governments to control the application process. By limiting the availability and volume of application forms, the number of applicants could then in theory be more tightly controlled. No doubt Migration Watch can advise if this form of control was ever actually applied, but that ponder is best left for another time!

Although, quite possibly by the 1980s the advent of CD ROMS meant some forms were likely to be accessed more easily, however, it was the internet that really offered a change in the way immigration applications took place.

With the original content managed website for IND around 2000, for the first time ever, it was easy for everyone to access the immigration rules. The democratisation of information enabled applicants to better tailor their application. It’s little surprise that within a few years of the internet and the birth of online Government communication, various countries around the world enacted Freedom of Information Acts, legally enshrining in law that all information held by Governments be accessible to the public. In other words, the model of the internet has pushed society to improve the law and democratic access to information. Such is the power of the internet!

Back to online forms...

While the 2000 IND website version was essentially a book cover linking to a content sitemap, the 2005 version had an underlying information architecture, structured in such a way that users could more easily find the content they were looking for. Knowing the popular content on the site allowed us as site managers to develop quick links to sections that we knew people would be looking for.

My work at the Home Office resulted in the first IND website where users could - FOR THE FIRST TIME, read plain English instructions and guidance notes which would allow them to apply for British Nationality. This replaced the old system of writing or telephoning the department and asking for the forms to be sent via the post.

It made me immensely proud to work on delivering a step-change to how Government delivered its services.

Now to 2016 and how does the application form process look now? Well it’s interesting to note that not much has changed since 2000:

  • The form is still only a .pdf download
  • Users are now directed to .gov.uk. I was also involved in the Government’s website rationalisation programme within the Home Office which resulted in shutting down and moving content from 100s of small Government websites that were created in the early days of the internet to one central government website portal.
  • Accessibility standards have improved. There are no more ‘click here’s’ or text as graphics and the .pdf format is now accessible so that disabled users can complete the form offline.

So why don’t Governments have online forms for applying for Nationality?

As experts in Umbraco form development and the internal e-CRM system our client uses, we’ve got lots of valuable experience in developing online forms, but it’s still a challenge to get right every time.

An example of a form to apply to win a competition...

Finish registration website page

For this form to work, we had to configure our CMS templates to work with the e-CRM system our client uses so that the form data is securely entered into the client’s database. Then alongside opt-in clauses, we also had to ensure our code complied with EU legislation on data protection.

This form and campaign probably wouldn’t work if the form was not online. Consumers don’t have the time or inclination to print out a form, complete it and send it back. In some markets this competition is running as an ‘instant win’ campaign. This would be impossible to deliver if the form was a .pdf that needed printing and sending via snail mail.

So why don’t Government’s make things easier for potential citizens and allow the application process to be entirely online? I suspect that there are few reasons:

  1. The cost of re-engineering the entire end to end application process to run online is probably quite restrictive. Government IT projects are notoriously problematic to deliver, as the Home Office and UK Government are acutely aware (see NHS IT failures as an example).
  2. Making the process even simpler and quicker may be undesirable in the current immigration climate.This is controversial, but cannot be ignored. At a time when the Government is concerned about ‘uncontrolled immigration’, making the application process easier to complete is probably bottom of the priority list.
  3. There’s an inherent fear of data security breaches from both sides. Governments will fear that providing services online will mean a loss of data security. Equally users of Government services are extremely weary of the information they give to Government agencies.
  4. The application process is not simple, requiring multiple documents which may take time to compile. The applicant would need to create a secure login where they could store partially completed applications.
  5. There are still no formal ways of providing ‘official documents’ in a digital form, nor formal Government databases where this information can be held and available to the applicant. For example, applying for a passport requires the user to submit a photo, countersigned by someone else. Working out how that part of the form could be authentically and digitally reproduced would require Governments to have a way of digitally recognising and authenticating its citizens. Whilst there are various unofficial ways this has been previously set-up, there is no nationwide database of citizens nor a “digital ID card” which would enable the Government to validate counter-signatures. Interestingly, on researching this further I see that .gov.uk is now offering an online verification service for use across a number of existing government services.

As the above shows, there are not insurmountable barriers to bringing the end to end nationality application form process online. We know from working with our commercial clients that the technology is there. Users are increasingly growing accustomed to completing online forms. As the consumer becomes more comfortable providing their data in online forms, the expectation of Government service provision will heighten. I believe it is only really a matter of time and Government inclination before the nationality application process becomes fully web enabled and it will be interesting to see when this step change will emerge. If any Government offices out there are interested in developing their nationality application process online, we’d love to help achieve that. We await your call!