ATO's clunky E-tax for Mac highlights cultural problems

ATO's clunky E-tax for Mac highlights cultural problems

Summary: Can risk-averse government agencies and a tendency to fall for the sunk cost fallacy ever deliver forward-looking applications?

TOPICS: Government AU, Apple

That new E-tax for Mac application from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is hilarious. Its failure to use a developer certificate — meaning that OS X running under its default security settings would reject it as suspicious software from an untrusted source — seems to indicate poor testing. Surely, trying to install and run the app on a stock OS X installation just once would have detected this. But that's just the start.

The ATO's reported AU$4.7 million spend has delivered an old-fashioned clunker that's so unlike actual OS X software that it looks as out of place as a stripper at a funeral.

The alien appearance comes from it being a straight port of Windows software. It arrives as a Windows-style installer rather than a .pkg file, for instance, and that installer asks whether it should install into the Applications directory or somewhere else. Mac users don't expect to be bothered with such things. And don't get me started on the arrangement of the menus.

But E-tax is also infested with usability glitches. The installer asks which version of the software to install, for example, when there's only one.

My favourite, though, is when E-tax asks for my Tax File Number (TFN). I copied my TFN from my secure records, where it was written in the usual format "123 456 789", and pasted it in. That was rejected: "Error. Result contains invalid characters." Normal humans find that sort of language completely opaque. Still, I re-typed my TFN without spaces. It was accepted — and then reformatted to display with spaces again!

I could go on. There's much to laugh at in E-tax for Mac. But let's make some serious observations.

The big question is why E-tax is being done as downloadable applications specific to each operating system.

That approach would have made sense when the ATO started the E-tax project, back in the days of dial-up internet. A downloadable app could do all the grunt work locally, only transmitting the completed tax return at the end as a small chunk of data.

But these days, we have things called "broadband" and "web applications", making everything independent of the user's operating system, and the security problems are well understood. Dial-up internet is all but consigned to history, and even banks use web apps — and they tend to think about security.

Maybe it's a budget problem. While AU$5.2 million seems a lot for porting an existing app, that figure also includes support. But I wonder whether cultural factors are at play — and, specifically, a tendency for government agencies to fall for the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk costs are money that has already been spent. The sunk cost fallacy is when you think that because you've already invested a lot of money in a project that then runs into problems, you need to spend more money to fix it, to prevent "wasting" the money you've already spent. The fallacy is that the money you've already spent is already gone.

The clear-headed way forward is to look at the situation as it stands today, and assess how to most effectively reach your goal. Maybe that means dumping everything you've done so far.

A classic example of the sunk cost fallacy at work is Tcard, the failed electronic ticketing system for Sydney's public transport system. Originally intended to be used during the 2000 Olympic Games, it still wasn't finished a decade later — and eventually, it was scrapped. It should have been scrapped much earlier.

Government agencies like the ATO are particularly prone to the sunk cost fallacy, for a number of reasons.

They tend to have a more consensus-based management style, rather than a commanding leader with the power to pull the plug. Their communication style is indirect, with reports speaking of "continuing difficulties" rather than "unmitigated disasters".

No public servant wants to end up fronting a Senate Estimates committee to explain why they "wasted taxpayers' money". No government minister wants to give their political opposition the opportunity to ask the same question. Neither wants to be seen to be making "courageous decisions", as the euphemism goes.

I also wonder whether the best and most forward-looking programmers have heads filled with Silicon Valley dreams of becoming billionaires, and would rather work in the stereotypical tech startup, rather than in government. Put less politely, I wonder whether the government doesn't end up being stuck with the B Team most of the time. After all, it doesn't offer the most lucrative salaries.

Whatever the cause, in the case of the ATO's E-tax program, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on something that looks out of date on day one. If that embarrassment is all that existing processes can deliver, then clearly, the processes need changing.

Topics: Government AU, Apple


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • sad stuff

    I'm not sure where the blame lies with this mess, the ATO certainly won't give you truthful answers. But as someone who has been in and out of government roles for years, it's not the B team, probably not the C team, but more than likely the D team who built this sad excuse for a application.
  • sad sufff

    The need to consult an expert
    • They thought they had an expert...

      they payed DWS all that money to make the Mac port. DWS robbed them.
      • Really?

        It works, doesn't it?

        The mistakes in packaging for installation are unfortunate, but the operational stuff sounds like they got what they asked for: a faithful port of their app.

        You might argue that they should've redesigned it in the process, but if they'd done that you wouldn't have it this year. Or next year. Or the year after.

        So do you want "a bit ugly, and working now" or "maybe in a couple of years if the project to redevelop it doesn't fail completely" ?
    • Not the developers fault

      Anyone who's worked in a govt department knows that the developers are awesome, but the regulations and management stop apps from being 'great'.

      Either way, some of the claims above happen for MANY mac apps. Certificate is a simple fix, and shouldn't be headline. At the end of the day does the app work? Yes. So get off the design horse. OS's are a commodity, The Mac vs PC debate ended five years ago. The hardware war is still being won by pc (15x as many pcs as mac are sold ATM - declining from 30x, but now holding steady as mac sales dive again also)
  • Linux still in the cold

    Still waiting on a Linux version
  • God forgive them because they ate still living in the 90s.

    Being in government I really don't think its a sunk costs problem.. I just think people in Finance and many technical areas in government don't understand the modern technical world, let alone OSX, IOS devices etc. Most government departments are still on XP or might just be migrating to Windows 7 because they are safe options. Many government IT departments still scream in fear and sabotage any Apple introductions. They are still living in the early 90s when MS reigned supreme and therefore they have created an application that is commensurate with that environment and mindset. Basically they have missed the whole Tech revolution of the last ten years. Everyone knows they could have obtained an external developer to create a Hybrid or Native App, probably would have cost between 30 and 50 k and plonked it on the App store and all and sundry could have downloaded it for free. Unfortunately, thats now how they think... because their thinking is so far behind and there is no incentive to be innovative. As my old state service boss used to say; "I hate doing anything new it makes me nervous and open to criticism, we should find out what everyone else is doing in government instead and copy that." The only problem with this is that everyone is copying everyone else...its a race to the bottom.
    Macs and IOS devices are a passing fad M$ will make a comeback, lets just wait and see :-) :-)
    Richard Romanov
  • The times they are a changing

    I agree, it is probably the X, Y, or Z team. Anyone who wants to change anything in government meets the inertia of complacency of these teams and the Managers who have been promoted are the ones specalising in preserving the STATUS QUO. Can you name an Australian government department that actually uses Macs or IOS devices? - They are certainly still in the 90s.

    But as Dylan says:
    Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don’t stand in the doorway
    Don’t block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
    It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin’
  • Privacy law and data exposure

    By doing most of the grunt work locally, eTax limits the amount of data that the Tax Office can see - and have breached in case of problems.

    This way data goes in one direction only - from you to the ATO. You can't get it back out again. A whole category of possible breaches involving user impersonation, session hijacking, XSS, etc just goes away.

    Personally I'll take a horrid, clunky desktop app over a web app for my taxes any day.

    Personally I'm surprised they didn't opt for Java Swing. Sure, it used to be pretty clunky, but it's *portable* clunky, and their UI shows that they weren't exactly targeting pretty as their #1 goal.
  • Seriously?

    So after years of complaining from us all, the ATO deliver on par with the Windows version and the complaint is 'it isn't pretty'?

    I expect the aim was to get the two platforms on par. Lets not forget that the security and integration to the back end would likely involve a lot of development - so the cost is not so far out of the ball park. This isn't some small iOS app they developed like kiddies in the garage.

    So what if they made a whole heap of features that the PC version didn't get - then there is public outcry that the PC group are even more disadvantaged. Put the buttons and menus in different spaces then watch the support people go through extra questions to find out from the less technologically literate to find out what questions they have.

    And why does the government agency need to have mac users? This would have been built by the lowest cost compliant bid in response to a set of business requirements.

    And who says browser based is the way of the future? Why not mobile app?
    • It probably wouldn't

      "So what if they made a whole heap of features that the PC version didn't get "

      Meh, I've YET to see a web app have at least at many features as an equivalent PC app. For all the progress that's been made - web apps only add "social" features - they do not add practical features.
    • @Macrat

      "Why not a mobile app?" I can't imagine wanting to enter my tax return on a mobile, but mine is complex.
  • Thoughts

    (divided into pieces because of ZDNet's still BROKEN anti-spam code)

    "The alien appearance comes from it being a straight port of Windows software. It arrives as a Windows-style installer rather than a .pkg file,"

    Groan. It doesn't just "appear" to be a straight port of Windows software - frankly, it is.

    "My favourite, though, is when E-tax asks for my Tax File Number (TFN). I copied my TFN from my secure records, where it was written in the usual format '123 456 789', and pasted it in. That was rejected: 'Error. Result contains invalid characters.' Normal humans find that sort of language completely opaque. Still, I re-typed my TFN without spaces. It was accepted — and then reformatted to display with spaces again!"

    Really bad parsing code. Really bad. Somebody was ultra-lazy.
  • reply 2

    (seriously spam filters?)

    "But these days, we have things called 'broadband' and 'web applications', making everything independent of the user's operating system, and the security problems are well understood."
  • reply 3

    Although I should note that nobody on ZDNet has ever convinced me that "web applications" are really superior than regular applications in all respects. There are tradeoffs, no matter how much bloggers want to wish there weren't.
  • reply 4

    It's even considered a "big advance" when JavaScript becomes half as fast as C++. HALF as fast. Are bloggers insane?

    Also, despite the promise of offline access in HTML 5, it's as unreliable as ever. Half the time the website fails to load when offline, even when it supposedly supports offline access.

    The security problems are well understood for offline products even more, considering they're older than online products. In fact, the security for online products is currently understood to be "really bad."

    Despite the advantages of "web applications," it's still a tradeoff, and they still have their disadvantages.
  • reply 5

    All that being said, yes, being able to do taxes online should have been a goal. That's one thing where you don't really need an app (it's only once a year, why download an entire app for that?)

    And while we're at it . . .

    . . . Australia *is* behind the USA in this respect no matter what. The IRS has e-file, and third parties (H&R Block, Turbo Tax, etc) have both online and offline products.

    How about this: Contract out one of the third party vendors to help the gov't design its software and web services?

    ZDNet, PLEASE FIX your buggy anti-spam measures. They're horrible, horrid. Nothing in my posts are spammy. I just happened to create a long post that happens to have a lot of quotes. That should not, by itself, trip up anti-spam measures. It's horribly broken.

    And while we're at it - I want the edit button back as well. It's not helping anything, and in fact is hurting far more than it theoretically helps in whatever way the web designer seems to think it helps.
  • Don't stop now!

    So the iPad version cannot be far away, right? Right!?
    Ben Boyd
  • Web App - Not a good idea

    While a Web App may seem a good idea. The security requirements place on Government Departments would require the installation of an AusKey token. The process to install the token is clunky to say the least. It would be beyond the average user.