(originally posted on LinkedIn)
Do you remember where you were when Chancellor George Osbourne announced during his Budget Statement in Parliament that “tax need not be taxing” and the end of the “complex, costly and time consuming” tax return that 12 million people in the UK have to fill out each year? I was jumping up and down for joy.
Ozzy banged the Despatch Box and announced that our tax information will be collected and processed automagically. He even described it as a digital revolution, or did I imagine that? Too good to be true? I checked the transcript:
We set up the Office of Tax Simplification at the start of this Parliament and I want to thank Michael Jack and John Whiting for the fantastic work they have done.
To support five million people who are self-employed, and to make their tax affairs simpler, in the next Parliament we will abolish Class 2 National Insurance contributions for the self-employed entirely.
And today we can bring simpler taxes to many more.
12 million people and small businesses are forced to complete a self-assessment tax return every year. It is complex, costly and time-consuming.
So, today I am announcing this.
We will abolish the annual tax return altogether.
Millions of individuals will have the information the Revenue needs automatically uploaded into new digital tax accounts.
A minority with the most complex tax affairs will be able to manage their account on-line.
Businesses will feel like they are paying a simple, single business tax – and again, for most, the information needed will be automatically received.
A revolutionary simplification of tax collection. Starting next year.
Because we believe people should be working for themselves, not working for the tax man.
Tax really doesn’t have to be taxing, and this spells the death of the annual tax return.
Exciting news and perhaps more achievable than ever in this new age of Government Digital Services? As a UK taxpayer and UK-domiciled technology analyst, with experience of working with UK Gov as well as being a user of their services, for the past year and more I’ve been listening to the new Government Digital Service espouse a new way of doing government technology business:
- Out with the big service providers, in with the SMEs
- Listening to user needs
- Continuous delivery
- Open source
Today is a rare day of a solar eclipse and as I write this at 0924 the sun is obscured by the moon but there is also some darkness online as news emerges of a failed and now abandoned UK Government Digital Service called the Rural Payments System. Instead, a manual (previous/old?) paper-based system is in place. We all want our online government services to succeed but the familiar heart-sinking feeling returns.
According to available data the RPS was used by approximately three-quarters of the UKs eighty-seven thousand farmers. The National Farmers Union (NFU) has been complaining loudly for sometime on behalf of its members and has identified the main problems as being:
- Online mapping tool.
- System unavailability.
- Slow data processing.
- Piecemeal improvements (continuous delivery?).
- Missing key functions.
- Appalling rural broadband speed.
Tellingly, the NFU and its members specifically cite a key failure being attributed to the core design principles of GDS, the use of Continuous Delivery, which The Minister George Eustace defended. Alastair Driver’s article on Farmers Guardian is an excellent piece:
The issues stem from the ‘iterative’ approach taken to delivering the system, which has been released gradually and constantly updated, taking the system out of action, using feedback from farmers. The approach has undermined the confidence of farmers and agents who expected better performance from the system when they got to use it.
The RPA spokesman said: “We are constantly updating and improving the service based on the feedback we have received from users.
“Occasionally the service will be briefly interrupted while we make technical changes but we always endeavour to minimise disruption and update users in advance.”
Mr Eustice said the iterative process was preferable to a ‘big bang launch in April only to find there are all sorts of unpredicted problems’.
George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers Association was very clear: “The TFA has always been opposed to the “digital-by-default” dogma expressed by Defra.”
A statement from Defra was that the system was being abandoned after “listening intently to farmers”.
One has to ask the obvious question: if one is “listening intently”, how could so much money and time could be spent getting to this expensive dead end?
This system has had various figures attached to it in terms of cost, one latest being a £154m amount paid to contractors and consultants. One article says that large consultancies like Steria and Accenture were part of a multi-year engagement, neither of which are SMEs.
If forty-six thousand farmers struggle with an online tool, let’s turn our attention to those twelve million tax return people. There are no details about how this will work but it is expected that their tax details will be collected and processed auto-magically with little or no input from the taxpayer. Given this latest problem with a Government Digital Service, all twelve-million of us UK taxpayers have stopped whoopin’ and a hollerin’ and wonder “will it ever happen?”, “how much will it cost?” and “if it doesn’t work, will my tax affairs and finances be impacted”.
What do you think?