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UK Government IT incompetency: fco.gov.uk

First of all I’m grateful that I live in a country where I can write a blog post with a title like the one that I have used.

Some friends of mine from China - currently living in Sweden - wanted to come and visit me in the UK. My complaints about the processes and paperwork involved in applying for their visa are an entirely different post, but I was at least pacified by the fact that the application could be made online.

After my government had extracted £72 from each of my friends for the privilege of them applying to visit me we were presented with a link to a printable version of their visa application containing the details that they had supplied with their application. This form, once printed was to be presented to the UK embassy Stockholm so their case for a visa could be assessed.

There was a problem though when we looked at the printable forms, all accented characters had been removed. This was to prove a problem, my friends live in Västerås which now appeared on our printable forms as Vsters.

I was in no doubt that the embassy would happily dismiss our applications on the basis of an incorrect address. I decided to get in touch and report a bug with their website.

Logically, I hit the contact us link and a fairly standard feedback form appeared. Indeed it was fairly standard with one glaring exception. In the text area where I was to enter my query some JavaScript was in place to ensure that I didn’t enter any characters except English letters, numbers and full stops. Basically an event handler that cancelled any key strokes deemed to be non-standard characters.

I appended this issue to my initial query and fired of an email (note lack of punctuation in my message).

When you make a visa application and go to print out the application accented foreign characters are removed meaning that you cannot enter a valid Swedish address. Ive just noticed you cant type some punctuation into this text area. Who builds the government websites. This is ridiculous. I build websites for a living and you are making basic fundamental mistakes.

I expected an apology, some excuse and a guarantee that the issue would be looked into, or more in line with previous experiences of UK government websites, no reply at all. What I got was quite a different response.

Dear Mr Ferguson
Thank you for your feedback.
Our site is not Sweden specific but world-wide. In order to be able to provide support to as many systems, PCs and means of entry to our on-line application process as possible we have had to design a fairly standard operating system. It is currently restricted to our business language, English, and providing a translation of our information into the local language of a specific country. Because it is restricted, it is permissable, on the printed version of a completed application form, to hand-write any additional information/make corrections that you wish.

We have passed your comments onto our technical support team for inclusion - if possible - in our next upgrade.

Hmmm, I smell bullshit. Either you don’t understand the issue or you are claiming it is by design. I decided to persist.

Sorry, I build websites for a living. Your reply doesn't make sense.
It is simple to build a system that accepts characters in any language.
If your technical department have told you otherwise they aren't very skilled.

Now whoever is sitting on the support desk wants to argue.

It does to us here as our business language is English, and the only language we currently provide punctuation for.

But we are keen to improve our system where we can and your feedback has been passed on to our technical support team.

I’ll admit I’m a little wound up now – you don’t provide support for punctuation or accented characters it exists by default.

Again, your point makes no sense.
Your feedback form does not accept question marks, colons etc which are all standard english characters.
Please just accept my valid criticism rather than trying to make an argument where there is no case for one.

Still support desk guy/girl wants to argue with me (I like the fact we are discussing punctuation even though the support individual clearly can’t spell the word):

Your original complaint, Mr Ferguson, was about the lack of Swedish punctuation: we have expalained why we do not - currently - offer puntuation in foreign languages. The lack of Swedish puntuation has not in any material way affected your ability to apply for a UK visa.

The reason for the omission of mandatory English punctuation from our feedback form is obvious: English is not the first language of most of our customers. The obligatory use of English punctuation would only make our customer journey more complex than is absolutely necessary.

There was further correspondence during which I grew more frustrated, but it became apparent that whoever was answering my emails was unable to even understand the point that I was trying to make. I gave up after receiving this response:

Our on-line application system tries to provide the simplest customer journey for the majority of our customers, who we require to use our business language, English, but as a compensation, not to any exacting degree - hence no English punctuation required (demanded...mandatory...needed): we can understand our customers without English punctuation (the lack of English punctuation being the basis of your second complaint,  Mr Ferguson).

But please be assured that your feedback is important to us and has been passed on to our technical support team.

So my major concerns. Who builds our government websites? Who designs and approves such poor functionality? How much of my tax gets spent on this rubbish? Finally, and most importantly how do I pitch? I’m sure I could show the government how well websites can work for you when they are designed and built properly.

In future when I read all of the stories about failed government IT projects which have cost the taxpayer millions, I’ll be a little less surprised having witnessed some of this incompetence first hand.


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