Tax returns online: how was it for you?

Eugene Lacey: The Inland Revenue avoids meltdown on 'deadline day', and may save millions by switching its 70,000 desktops to Linux.

As the deadline for filing tax returns passed yesterday, many ZDNet UK readers will be breathing a sigh of relief today that this tiresome annual chore has been completed once again. But it wasn't easy; it never is. For many, probably the last sunny weekend of autumn was spent moving piles of building society statements around the living room floor.

The Inland Revenue has sought to gently persuade the public that filing tax returns need not be like a visit to the dentist. Using its online filing system, you don't even have to do the calculations any more. The free, online Web service does them for you.

Well, it does when it's up and running. Once again the Revenue was left with huge omelettes on its face as the system spluttered in the run-up to yesterday's deadline. On the final day it worked -- but only just. One ZDNet UK reader phoned in to outline the problems she'd encountered.

The system had rejected her filing with an alarming message: "An error has occurred in transmission. You cannot resubmit." After a short wait to get through to the help line, she was told to ignore this message -- and log in again using her unique ID and password (issued by mail). As promised by the helpdesk, once she reopened her online account the magic message she had been hoping for was waiting to greet her: "Your tax return has been received."

So was this reader furious at all the messing around? Er, no, actually she was rather complimentary about the service. "Having worked it all out myself last year, I was absolutely delighted with the auto calculation tool. I didn't have to wait that long to get through to the help line -- and when I did the operator was well informed and reassuring."

This is a good result for the Revenue, and one that will doubtless have been repeated in many homes and small businesses. The Revenue would prefer not to have had more teething problems with the system this year -- after previous niggles, but overall the system seems to have held up and made progress.

Many systems -- and not just computer systems -- struggle to cope with a sudden peak in users, as anyone who has ever used the M25 between 7.30 a.m. and 9.00 a.m. can testify. If you can, it is best to avoid the busy periods for online systems too.

So we can cut the Revenue a little slack here. Moreover, it is worth noting that the Revenue is way ahead of other government departments in providing 'self-serve' Web services to the general public.

The Vehicle Licensing Authority, Customs and Excise, DTI training grants, and criminal justice system can all learn a lesson from the progress that has been made at the Inland Revenue.

The benefits of 'self-serve' go much deeper than making life easier for you and I -- although that is a great place to start. There are enormous cost savings that can be passed back directly to the taxpayer -- or used to improve services.

The big win from e-government comes from being able to automate administrative chores -- basically making it easy for users to self-administrate, thereby freeing up resources for more valuable work. In the case of the National Health Service or the police forces, for example, this could result in a dramatic switching of resources from administration to nurses on wards and officers on the streets. This is the promise of e-government.

It has been reported that the Revenue may make further significant cost savings by replacing its 70,000 Wintel-based desktops with PCs running Linux. The IT newspaper Computing quotes Sun's Scott McNeally, who says Linux PCs would be "half the cost at acquisition and maybe less than half the operating costs".

If a large public body such as the Inland Revenue can successfully run an army of open-source PCs, the savings to the taxpayer could be enormous if other government departments follow suit. All government departments and large companies will be paying close attention to developments at the IR -- which again is evidence that the Revenue is starting to get things right.

E-government should be about switching resources into the things that really matter -- by spending less on the things that don't. Despite a few early hiccups, the Inland Revenue is starting to emerge as the department to watch in the march towards e-government. ZDNet UK has criticised the Revenue in the past for its e-government failings. Now it seems to be putting its house in order -- and is setting an example that other government departments can follow.

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