Mike Cross, writing in the Guardian, took (as always) a balanced view of the problems that the Inland Revenue faced with its Self Assessment service in the last few days of January. He also quoted me twice, which must make him correct in his thinking, right?
Here’s the balanced part
The overload was an embarrassment – especially as it was the first tax deadline to be handled by the Inland Revenue’s new IT contractor, Capgemini, which took over last July.
But it was also a triumph. Although official figures are not yet available, the Inland Revenue was confident the number of people filing their returns electronically would exceed the record 1.1m achieved in 2002-03.
Impossible to argue with both of those points. Embarrassing to fall so painfully at the final hurdle, but impressive that growth should be reported as strong. Full disclosure here: I worked hard on the original implementation of SA online for the IR early in 2000 and 2001 – when the press was nothing but staggeringly negative.
Mike goes on (here’s the PR for me):
More significant, says Alan Mather, former head of the Cabinet Office e-delivery unit, the large number of last-minute online submissions shows that people are beginning to trust government on the web. However, this trust will not last long if government services continue to be overwhelmed by
Resilience is expensive, but Mather says there is no alternative if people are to turn en masse to e-government. “If any of this stuff is going to make a difference, it needs to be there all the time, accessible in an instant and comprehensive with its feedback. Otherwise, why would anyone be daft enough to make the switch?”
And a bit more balance, tinged with pointed humour:
Such fiascos demanded a radical solution. Government IT chiefs came up with one – henceforth, public-facing web services would be set up with no publicity. This is one reason why almost no one knows you can pay car tax online; another is the continuing delay to the MOT test database, due to go live in November.
And notes that there is much to learn – but it’s not as if there is no-one to learn from:
Other sites, as the Inland Revenue has discovered, will have to deal with peaks of demand. Commercial organisations have painfully discovered ways of handling such loads, for example stripping out graphics at busy times and hosting sites at shared service centres that can cope with peaks.
He’s right. And government has been wrong. Hiding your service so that no-one can find it is no solution. If it works with 100 people, there’s no guarantee that it will work with 1,000 or 10,000 – so testing it upfront is essential (and there are all sorts of tests that need to be done). Then, if you’ve tested it, go for the colourful PR launch.
One of the problems with finding online services in the UK remains the need to sift through 1000s of websites. Google doesn’t help you find transactions so easily, it doesn’t tell you whether your local council lets you handle your council tax online – it gets you to the site. You then have to dig through the interminable layers of navigation to find what it is that you need – only to find (often) that you can’t do what you want. So here I go again – fewer sites, designed to handle more load, with better capability, far better thinking around user need and delivered in partnership with intermediaries and third parties so that there is a single definitive source.
Easy? I wish. Important? Yes. Fixing world poverty important? Depends on your point of view – but some things you can wish for for a long time and get nothing, others you can take steps towards making happen!