This week’s Economist has a page on e-government, drawing mostly on the quote that my colleague Steve Marsh made a couple of weeks ago about us needing a miracle to hit the 2005 target. Naturally the Economist takes a few potshots at the story so far, including an old one on the Self Assessment service (which is referred to as poorly designed and buggy – methinks the author last tried more than 18 months ago because the feedback on the present version is that it’s slick and easy), but also makes some good points on what should be done, which is rare.
The first suggestion is to centre websites around (what I’ll call) life events or things going on in people’s lives – buying a car, buying a house and so on. UKonline tried that on day one but, at the time, all that was possible was a collection of links which didn’t do the job although a huge amount of thinking and effort went into them. The Econo people say that this can only be done properly by reorganising government behind the scenes so that these services are all joined up – after all, “a thin electronic veneer” is not enough. I disagree with this point – a veneer is there for the taking today and can camoflauge much of the complexity and at least give the appearance of a joined up service. The structural change to really achieve it will take dedicated focus for the next 3 parliaments at least – so 12-15 more year.
Lastly the article says that people will only use services that are “better and faster” (which is true) or have an “incentive, like the £10 to send in a tax form” (which was something tried 3 years ago that has not been repeated – it wasn’t successful then and everything I’ve seen so far says it won’t be now). Better and faster is good – the “cheaper” argument is interesting because everything on the web that has succeeded has done because it’s cheaper – books on Amazon are cheaper (better still if you have the free shipping option), electronics are cheaper, DVDs are cheaper and so on. But the Wall Street Journal and the Economist charge you extra for the online service (which is why I haven’t linked to it today) even if you are a print subscriber. So I’m not sure that £10 off your tax bill makes a difference. A refund in 4 days instead of 4 weeks might be something (and that’s what you get with the online version today), calculating your tax liability accurately might be something (and that’s what you get today), and maybe providing some suggestions on how to reduce your tax bill next time (after all it’s too late now for last year), perhaps including things like ISA suggestions? That last one will be hard for the Revenue to do, but maybe in partnership with others it’s possible.