Online tax forms that are just like paper

Sounds a daft idea … an online form that’s just like paper … but, actually, it probably has a lot of merit. People are familar with the tax form (or the benefit form or whatever) and transposing it as is online, but adding validation and checking is pretty much what everyone has done to date with their online services. That process has, however, involved the creation of vast amounts of technical infrastructure and, in most cases, even requires whoever is completing the form to sit in front of their PC, online, while filling it in. No problem if you’re a broadband user or on a tariff, but might be a problem if you aren’t.

Confronting that, Adobe have come up with some changes to PDF that allow anyone with the reader software (version 5.1 or later) to inline edit a modified PDF file. So the tax folks can ship a PDF file to people who can then work on it in their own time, online or offline. When they’re done, the PDF wraps up the answers in an XML file and then sends them back to government. Their version of the US tax form is online here. It turns out that Adobe folks don’t make the best presenters of their own wares as I found out at a session this week, but the product needs to be explored.

Whilst replicating a paper form online isn’t what I call e-government, it’s a way to get some services available that are value-added versus the paper versions (error checking, context sensitive help, electronic input for government etc) and without needing quite the same infrastructure that you would otherwise need (you’ll probably still have to have people write javascript or VB but it will all be embedded in the PDF file rather than needing a complex hosted environment) and, it will be secure because all the data is in the form that the client has rather than in a server somewhere in the cloud. And whilst those are online, we can crack on with the hard work of stripping out the redundant processes and making the necessary changes to business logic to support the delivery of transformed government. Surely even the swingometer crowd would count such a plan as progress?

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