Towards the end of last month, October 2021, I needed to pay land rates for some property in Nairobi. Previously, I have been able to do this by logging in to a Nairobi City Council web portal, entering the property identifier and seeing the amount due, then paying via M-Pesa, all quite easily.
However, after some of the City Council services were moved to the national government, this portal seems to have been taken down.
I asked around and was referred to the Nairobi Services website. I was told that I needed to sign up on that site. The site asks for the serial number of your National ID card. I don’t know what the rationale of this is, since the serial number can change, if you get a new ID card, as I recently did. I tried to sign up there and the website simply kept saying “Kindly try again later.” I looked for a copy of my old ID card and eventually found one. I tried signing up with the old serial number with the same results.
I had also been told that there is an app on the Google PlayStore that presumably does the same thing as the website. I downloaded the app and tried to sign up through it, without success. I entered my ID serial number and the app responded by asking me to enter my ID serial number, as if I had not just done so.
I also tried using the Forgot Password feature on the website, just in case my account was already there, but nothing seemed to happen. No error message, nothing.
Earlier, I had been referred to a page on the KRA website notifying the public that the KRA would be collecting Nairobi Land Rates. There was a phone number at the bottom of the page that the public was told they could call. The City Council had also been sending SMS messages about paying land rates, and these messages included this same telephone number as the helpline. I tried calling the number but got a message that it was out of service.
So, I was unable to sign up at the website and unable to log in. I was also unable to log in or sign up using the app. The helpline number was not functioning. In other words, the information systems were unavailable to me, and probably to hundreds of others.
I resorted to Twitter and sent a tweet to KRA.
As I waited for a response, I called one of KRA’s Customer care numbers and this number went through. I said I wanted to pay land rates and the person said she could give me the phone number of the relevant department. She read out the number and I told her that number is out of service. She then said she would forward my call to that department. She did and I stayed on the line for quite a while, before the line simply disconnected without anyone picking the call.
I tried again and this time I was finally through! I narrated my problems to the lady I spoke to and she said Yes, the website is not working. She asked for my details so that she could have me manually registered on the site from their end. I gave her the details.
Meanwhile, I went back to Twitter and found that KRA had responded to my tweet and referred me back to the old Nairobi City Council portal.
I had forgotten my password and I tried using the Forgot Password feature to reset it. The reset feature asked for the email address I had signed up with and I entered it and clicked the Submit button. A message appeared very briefly on the screen. I checked my email for a reset message. Nothing. I checked the Spam folder. I found several messages that I indicated to Google are Not spam so that they don’t get filtered again, but no messages from the City Council. I tried again and it was on the third try that I managed to see on the very-briefly-displayed message that a code had been sent to my phone, and not to my email as I had thought. I checked my phone and indeed found a message with a code, as well as two other messages from my previous attempts.
I was finally able to reset my password and log in to the City Council portal.
Some of the lessons should be pretty obvious:
- Test your applications before going live. Test with the anticipated volumes of users in mind.
- If a problem is found on your web application, then put a notice informing your users that the application is currently not working.
- If your web application is not working and you have an alternative, then put a notice on the original website, and on other places, redirecting users to the working alternative. Your users should not have to resort to Twitter to get help.
- If you are going to advertise a helpline, then the helpline should be working.
- Messages to users should be displayed until the users close the messages themselves, not flashing so briefly that they can’t really be read.
I think the main reason government websites get away with providing such a poor user experience is that the clients of the government are compelled by law to seek the services offered by the government and only from the government. If this were a commercial scenario with the same service offered by different providers, then such frustration would certainly turn clients away and to other suppliers.