When things just don’t work

The Inland Revenue has come in for a lot of stick this week for problems with its online Self Assessment service (see the Guardian, Telegraph, the FT – who note “The Revenue knew beforehand that 3.5m people had not filed their returns at the start of January, so it should have been easy to predict what would happen”, and, of course, Simon Moores writing on Silicon, as opposed to the normal parchment that he uses, whilst lamenting that e-government is failing taxpayers). Apparently more than 5,000 people were trying to access it during the peak hour on 31st January – the very last day when people can send in their returns before they have to pay a penalty of £100.

I completely understand why people leave it until the last minute. First, it takes time to pull all of your tax details together: your bank interest statements, stockbroker information, rental income from property data etc; second, paying money to people is the last thing on anyone’s mind and if you owe people money, you leave it until the last possible minute (after all, how many of you give money to the Gas/Electricity/Phone company before they take it from your account? When they ask you what date you want the direct debit set up, you pick the latest one possible). After all, it’s our money before it’s the tax man’s! And I want to make use of mine for as long as possible before I hand it over.

But then, when they do leave it to the last minute, the right answer is not “You should have done it before the deadline”, “You’ve had 9 months” or “Early October is quiet”. That’s tantamount to asking the customer to plan for the government’s capacity planning problems. Unlike Disney though, there are no signs up saying that there will be a queue taking up to 90 minutes from this point in the line. How should the customer know that there will be problems? Now, people who go to Disney pay for the privilege to stand in line and people who go in the Summer holidays know that there will be delays, because there will be swarms of kids hanging around, rushing to get ahead of you in the lines and generally causing mayhem.

The culture of Last Minute is firmly embedded in our psyche – you can’t imagine lastminute.com existing if it didn’t (ok, I know Google built a brand out of a non-existent word, but the exception proves the rule). The Internet is about being able to do things at the last minute. It’s about suddenly remembering that it’s your best friend’s birthday tomorrow – and he lives on the west coast – and the only way to get something to him on time is to ship it via Amazon USA. If Amazon’s not there, ready to deal at the last minute, then not only do they lose the business (and someone else gets it) but it may result in the deal not happening at all.

The Revenue have, to be entirely fair, done their bit this year – the ads have been on the tube, on the radio, on the TV, in the magazines. They even say they’ve upped their bandwidth by 50% to cope with the load (not a helpful comment given how many other things can go wrong that aren’t anything to do with bandwidth). And they’ve processed record numbers of returns. But just imagine if they were on a promise to do 50% of tax returns online by the end of 2005. Hold on, they are. They’re one of only two departments with specific adoption goals for this year – and it’s a full 50% of everything they do through the online channel. That could be as many as 4 million returns. That’s a big step up from 5,000 per hour. That’s only 456 an hour if they come through 24/7/365 … but if they’re concentrated as they were this year with, say, 2% on the last day, they’re going to be handling 80,000 not 30,000.

But, plainly, bad PR discourages people from making the effort. The initial response to say that the £100 fine would stand if anyone didn’t file on time was not helpful. The retraction with the caveat about something to do with failure messages was marginally more helpful but not entirely comprehensible. Better PR would have been, “Hey, we screwed up! We’re going to give everyone an extra 2 weeks to get their returns in, as long as they do it online.” That would have given everyone who hadn’t taken care of their tax a kick in the pants, would have resulted in extra PR coverage and more front page reminders that there was still time to get it done. Too bad that didn’t happen. Getting to 80,000 in the face of a sense that the service “might not be there” requires the customer either to take the lesson of “do it early” to heart or some serious upgrades to capability and capacity by the Revenue’s IT provider. Let’s not forget here that this is about IT providers, not government departments. The requirement on the provider is clear – don’t make us look stupid – and it’s there that there needs to be some concentration. There and with the PR – but, let me tell you, getting a 2 week extension on the fly is not simply a management decision; I can imagine that one going to the top of the tree and back down again several times, possibly even requiring a change in the law! Nothing’s ever simple.

Just in case you think the Revenue are alone in having these kind of problems though, I thought I would do my bit of public service and remind you of a few others. Amazon had a “mornings” worth of outage in December 2004, although there were signs the problem had been on and off for at least 11 days. In October 2004, eBay’s own PayPal service had some serious problems – it was down for 5 days. In June last year, Pipex, the ISP, had some lengthy downtime. Also in June, major sites such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and even Google were down for several hours.

Shooting fish in a barrel. There’s no excuse for it, whether government or corporate. But it happens. The question is, how do people handle it? Do they bury their head in the sand initially (as did Intel when the first problems with the Pentium were found) or do they confront it head on and manage the PR (as the Aurora World Cruise folks did, resulting in massive positive coverage for what should have been a mess). You could even take the Labour party approach and release posters that you never planned to put up, get coverage about how terrible they are, then get coverage for taking them down – and all the time, they’re on page 1,2 and 3 of major newspapers. Now, ask anyone about their view of Michael Howard and the first image that springs to mind is either him looking a little pink with a pair of wings, or him swinging a watch a la paul mckenna doing hypnosis. The power is in the PR!

Or, we could all take the Calvert County example and ask the customer to manage the problem for us.

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