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Boston Digitizes Death Certificates, Saves Citizens Time and Money

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “6 Customer Experience Success Stories in Government.” Download the full guide here.

Until recently, the only options to buy a death certificate from the city of Boston were by mail, going to City Hall in person or through a third-party service that partnered with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Those processes were neither efficient nor cheap — the online option cost customers more than $40 per request, and even more for expedited requests.

Boston officials recognized that the period following a loved one’s death is often complicated. Getting a death certificate is only a small part of the arrangements, but the city wanted to find a way to make that process easier. The Digital Team, part of Boston’s Innovation and Technology Department, just needed to figure out a way to connect to an existing database and integrate with its online payment system.

The Response

A previous product manager conceived of the original idea, and after linking to the Registry Department’s database, the Digital Team built the app. The team then partnered with software company Stripe to integrate the app with Boston’s online payment system, and consulted with the Treasury Division to ensure that payments made through the app would not endanger user information.

When setting out, the team had four goals for the web app. Fin Hopkins, the main Software Engineer who led the death certificates tool development, outlined those goals in a Medium article about the project:

1. Take advantage of large development communities. The city wanted the service to already include plenty of tutorials and places to go to get help. The Digital Team didn’t want to have to build these themselves.

2. Be generally useful. The Digital Team wanted to ensure that whatever tools they chose would be adaptable for future apps.

3. Provide guardrails. They wanted tools that would catch bugs or prevent team members from writing them in the first place.

4. Allow for quick integration. Making incremental improvements should be an easy, quick-to-ship process. The Digital Team wanted to be able to implement improvements as soon as they were ready

The Outcome

The team used several tools for developing the app’s smooth, modern user interface, including React, Next.js and Storybook. Developers kept a tight loop and shipped changes within minutes.

The death certificates app went live on the Boston.gov domain in late March 2018, and since then users have ordered more than 700 death certificates over 235 purchases — about 20 percent of the overall purchases in the time period. That percentage was the team’s original goal from 2017.

“It’s pretty cool to be tracking [our Key Performance Indicator] right off the bat,” said Rachel Braun, the Digital Team’s Product Manager. “Part of the other success story internally for us is just the partnership we had in tandem with the Registry and Treasury departments. They were both really excited about this opportunity, and within a few days of soft-launching and beta-testing it, Registry felt comfortable putting out a very broad message to all area funeral homes. It was a big win for us.”

At the moment, the Digital Team is building out the app to accommodate birth and marriage certificates.

“While they represent very different life events and different needs, there’s also a great deal of functionality overlap,” Braun said.

So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and members of the Digital Team hope that will translate to increased awareness of digital services that the city offers, said Jeanethe Falvey, Boston’s Chief Digital Officer.

Getting Started

The Digital Team recommended that if state agencies planned to work in close collaboration with other departments, they should consider what those departments need. Projects that benefit multiple bodies in a government are bonus wins.

Additionally, when dealing with matters of public record and citizen information, spend plenty of time researching what your state or municipal laws entail. There’s little point in working on a project that violates the law.

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