Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Beyond Its Natural End

Jes. No, not that one. 
When I was working at the Arts and Humanities Research Council a colleague was given the task of preparing procedures to revolutionise the application system.

“What, we’re going to share a common application form with all the other councils? With the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council? With the Medical Research Council?” I asked.
“Yes”, she answered simply. And while I scoffed, and was sceptical about the potential for the artists and lone scholars of the arts and humanities to find common ground with engineers and scientists, she was vindicated by history.

In 2002 the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system was born. At first people were horrified. It was just so...complicated. It seemed to ask for the same information multiple times. And all those attachments. But over the years people have become, if not exactly fond, then at least accepting of it.

But it has begun to show its age. Last autumn the research councils announced that they were going to replace the creaking system. “Je-S is no longer a viable product,” they admitted. “It has come to a natural end and this is a fantastic opportunity to design a smarter, simpler, more user-friendly service in line with the latest digital standards.” Say what you like about the research councils, but they are wonderfully optimistic.

Users, however, were nervous. At a snappily titled New RCUK Awards Service Interoperability Workshop on 11 May, 60 people from a range of organisations expressed concerns about the consultation that the research councils had undertaken, and were worried that some of the good points about Je-S—such as host organisations having the final sign-off on any applications—would get thrown out with the bathwater.

RCUK was reassuring. “I am keen to reassure people that this is still early days [sic] and that you are not in any way behind the curve,” cooed Sarah Townsend, the senior research funding analyst at RCUK. “The bit of paper on the wall called a ‘service design’ is it at the moment. Nothing has been built and so this workshop was very timely. In the interests of transparency we have created a page on the RCUK website...where we have added frequently asked questions, communications and slide sets.”

The website goes further to reassure us about the level of consultation. The ‘user researchers’ have already conducted 75 hours of research on applicants, research organisation staff, peer reviewers, panel members and research council staff. They followed it up with five further interviews, and testing basic sample screens on 12 people. Further, they discussed their plans with 70 participants at an Association of Research Managers and Administrators study day, and afterwards interviewed nine volunteers individually.

It doesn’t stop there. A further 120 volunteers have come forward, and they have contacted 600 Je-S contacts, 12,500 applicants, 15,500 reviewers and 9,000 panel members.

All this should be reassuring. Certainly, they seem to have got the message on the importance of interoperability with national, international and individual systems already in use. They have also recognised the failings of the JeS—from the preponderance of attachments, to the confusing help text and the lack of visibility on the progress of a proposal—and there seems to be a genuine willingness to remedy them.

However, they haven’t given themselves much time to do so.

“The project is currently at the end of the Alpha phase”, the answer to the first of the ‘frequently asked questions’ on the website says, and yet the organisers are hoping to have it up and running in less than 10 months. To hit the target they are using an ‘agile’ system that can be built piecemeal, and would allow regular and simple updating.

The new system is intended to fit within the gov.uk framework. This is reassuring: my limited use of the website suggests that it is simple, intuitive, user-friendly and effective. But Je-S requires a different level of complexity from, say, applying for a tax disc. As my former colleague at the AHRC recognised, getting such different bodies to standardise their ways of working is no easy task.
Je-S 2.0 will need to accommodate a huge variety of schemes, which will require the collection and harmonisation of an intimidating amount of information, and allow for an increasing number of pre-award and post-award tasks. Is 10 months really enough? Perhaps, but those promises of full consultation have to be more than words if the system they create is to be robust and fit for purpose, and to ensure that we don’t have the same birthing pains that plagued the first few years of Je-S.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in July 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com


4 comments:

  1. To be fair MRC didn't join until a few years later - ahh EAA how lovely you were

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  2. To be fair MRC didn't join JeS for a few years - they had the lovely EAA system when all others went live - I know I had to change it over 4 years down the line!!

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  3. The last we heard was that this project had been effectively shelved pending the outcomes of the UKRI Great Rationalisation and Amalgamation (that is totally not a merger!)Project™
    Have you heard any different recently? there was promise of an update in Spring 2017 but the original 10 month plan to have the Je-S replacement up and running expired in March with little or no fanfare

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    1. No, not heard any more. This post was originally published in July last year, and I agree that it was quietly shelved - as I understand it partly as a result of the Referendum result and not enough bandwith in the civil service for so much upheaval all at once. I'm precising, but that was broadly the message.

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