Government on the web – not as bad a comparison as people make out

There’s an interesting article in the Sunday Times “Culture” magazine today, in the Doors section – I can’t link to it as it only pops up in a restricted window, but if you’re registered, enter “customs and excise” in the search box and you’ll find it quickly. The problem is that of paying duty, VAT and charges for importing goods from abroad and not so much that you have to pay (although that comes in for some stick), but how you find out what you might have to pay. It seems that the service offered by is not yet simple to understand (and nor are the rules for import duty and VAT I imagine).

Tariff information is available online after a fashion, but not at the Customs and Excise website (, which is where the phone service directs you. Instead, you must follow a deeply buried link to, where there is a search engine under the heading “ICN Online” — but don’t get too excited. The search engine has only recently been refined, and it takes the patience of Job to work out exactly which code applies to your goods.

A great opportunity to streamline a problematic process by using technology. I guess the issue is knowing how many people it causes pain for and how much pain it causes each, without good numbers for both of those, there is little business driver.

There is, however, one of those timeless quotes about the cost of bureaucracy. Some European law is changing that means duty and VAT will be payable on a much broader range of goods (with the kick off value starting lower). The Swedes have calculated that the cost of collecting revenues of £128 million will be £332 million. Great stuff.

Anyway, what prompted me to write about this was a hugely painful experience with AmEx online today. I haven’t seen a bill this month, so I thought I’d check online and pay somehow that way. Registering was a 2 minute job – nice process indeed, couple of shared secrets and instant access, no postal delays. Looking at the account was also simple, although at the first two attempts I was told that the “system was not responding” and that I should try later. But there was no sign of a “pay” button – nowhere at all. Eventually I found a link “how to pay“, but that didn’t mention online. Phoning the customer service helpline, I was greeted by a cheery chap who didn’t seem surprised that I could pay online, but also told me that I couldn’t pay via the phone either. So, I’m sending a cheque through the post. Now, where’s that direct debit form? Aghhhhhh!

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