The Government Digital Service (GDS) GOV.UK Notify service has come on leaps and bounds in recent months, and an ever increasing number of public services are using it for the delivery of email, SMS, and traditional letters.
My first interaction with Notify was in 2018 whilst working with a public sector customer who wanted to integrate Notify with their Blue Badge Service, ensuring their customers were reliably informed of their application status as it progressed through a mixture of manual and automated workflow stages.
After Googling “gov uk notify api documentation”, and clicking the first result, I was greeted with a link to a Microsoft .NET client bundled into a NuGet package. So far so good, it was refreshing to see a government service making it incredibly easy to consume an API. This also has the adding benefit of relying on GDS to keep it up-to date, ensuring the client evolves along with their API endpoint.
Total time from google to receiving a test email — about five minutes. Winner.
Well, not really. There’s dozens of providers out there, Sendgrid/Twilio, Mailchimp, Postmark to name a few, and they probably offer significantly more functionality. But there are a few things that come inherently from using Notify, which are a massive tick in the box for public services, such as:
- Fully DPA compliant
- Built on guidance provided by National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC)
- Assessed and approved by the Cabinet Office Senior Information Risk Officer (SIRO)
- Any information in Notify is classified as ‘OFFICIAL’ under the Government Security Classifications Policy.
- All system administration staff working on Notify are cleared to Security Check (SC) level by United Kingdom Security Vetting.
Naturally, it’s also compliant with the Government Secure Email guidance, so from a deliverability perspective, notifications have their best chance of finding their home inside an inbox, and not the dreaded spam folder.
Who can use it?
Any service based inside the UK central government, local authority, or the NHS.
So what can it do?
Notify may not, at least not yet, have hundreds of features, but what it does have is an excellent set of carefully crafted core functionalities, which I suspect fulfil the needs of the vast majority of its service users.
- Reusable templates that can be personalised: Instead of hand-crafting content each time, Notify provides the functionality to create a template, and then use placeholders to personalise the content for the intended recipient. For example, Dear ((first_name)).
- Bulk sending: Merge a spreadsheet style document with a template, i.e. one row per recipient with columns for each placeholder, like first_name.
- API integration: Using Notify isn’t restricted to their web interface, you can also perform most functions using their API, thus integrating directly with line of business apps.
- Optional two-way SMS: Recipients can reply to a SMS and Notify will forward the content using a web-hook mechanism to a chosen URL for processing.
But there’s more, because the wheels are turning fast at GDS and they’ve a feature packed road-map. A few things on the horizon are:
- Bilingual templates
- Link shortening (say goodbye to bit.ly and goo.gl for public service URLs)
- Two-factor authentication for email attachments
There’s also a few things you can use right now, such as:
- Letters generated from a template, printed and posted.
- Pre-compiled letters… sounds complex but what it really means is ‘print and post a PDF’.
Can Sendgrid/Twilio, Mailgun or Postmark send letters? Nope. Is it on their road-map? I doubt it.
Expensive and complex pricing structure? Not at all.
- Non-central public sector services — 25k free per year.
- Central government services — 250k per year.
Can’t argue with that.
Going beyond the above allowances, it’s currently 1.58p per message. I’m not going to compare all possible competitors, but as an example one of the best value alternatives, Twilio, currently charge 3p. Or rather close to double the cost.
- 30p for a 1 sheet double sided 2nd class letter, or 56p for super-speed 1st class.
Now, I can’t confess to be well up on the world of printing and direct mailing services, but I’m prepared to hazard a guess that 30p is very competitive.
Full disclosure: there is a planned price increase of 5 pence on 1st October 2019.
Who’s currently using it?
Short answer — many!
Half a BILLION notifications sent from over 1000 public services since May 2016.
As you’d expect, Email appears to be the clear medium of choice accounting for, roughly, 90% of notifications, followed by SMS and Letter.
Although this may not be the most environmentally friendly statement, I would like to see Notify Letters volumes increase. Snail-mail may be slowing, but it isn’t stopping any time soon, and for some public services, it perhaps never will. 30 pence for a 2nd class letter delivered to a door presents amazing value. It just needs some elbow work.
Nice shiny graphs here.
In a nutshell, it’s evident that GDS chose to ‘practise what you preach’ when designing the GOV.UK Notify Service. It really is hard to fault, and I’m looking forward to helping more public services embrace it.