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Lessons from the sharp end of digital service transformation: standardising process with the Prison visit booking service

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Exemplar projects


In the continuing series of posts from people across government who've been involved in the Transformation Programme, GDS Transformation Lead Jake Barlow shares a highlight of delivering the Prison visit booking exemplar as a Digital by Default service.

Booking a prison visit used to generate millions of phone calls a year, and much of the system was pen- and paper-based, with a wide range of different approaches across the 133 prisons in the UK. But it's not just the cumbersome offline process that made Prison visit booking a prime candidate for an exemplar service, look more closely and you’ll see it's about significantly improving the lives of users - both prison staff and visitors - who spent valuable time navigating what had the potential to be a simple, hassle-free digital system.

Our challenges

These were many and different for each and every prison. Understanding the end-to-end booking process and how it varied between prisons, and developing a standard process that would work for all of them was just the beginning. The product manager, user researcher and other team members visited prisons to research how the prison visits system operated. They looked into the practicalities and security issues that shaped the old service and essentially learnt how to run a prison, even reading the Prison Rules which give the underlying framework for the prison system.

Did it work?

Yes! Extensive research with users at all points in the booking process means that the new service ensures the right person gets to visit the right prisoner in a way that works for 92 Category B prisons and below, including Youth and Women’s. Visits can be requested online in about 5 mins and prison staff can approve them via email very quickly. This has meant families can visit their loved ones more frequently which, in the long run, is statistically proven to reduce reoffending rates. Staff also have more time to dedicate to other tasks which should enable the prisons to run more efficiently.

So what lessons have we learned?

With so many prisons all working independently of one another we quickly learnt to never assume that one solution will work for everyone. A couple of prisons were still taking a while to approve booking requests, despite the new service being in place. Using analytics helped the team to see exactly where the problem areas were. Armed with the facts they needed to open discussions with those prisons, the team were able to encourage changes to further reduce the time taken to process booking requests. We learnt that communication is key when developing a new digital service. Speak to users to get greater insight to the problems faced and keep those lines of communication open, even once a service goes live.

You can view the prison visit booking service here.

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