Taxing time for self-assessment

E-government services such as the Inland Revenue's self-assessment system need to be designed to serve the people - not bully them.

If you're self-employed or a higher-rate taxpayer, then your weekend was quite possibly spoiled by a tedious battle to file your tax return using the Inland Revenue's (IR) online service -- one of the key elements of the UK's much-vaunted e-government initiative.

For the majority of people, filing a tax return ranks up there with root canal work, so it should have come as no surprise that millions of taxpayers delayed the chore until the last minute, overloading the IR's servers and resulting in lengthy delays in receiving acknowledgements. The Revenue may point to its (expensive) media blitz of reminders about the upcoming deadline, but human nature is an ornery critter: yes, we've all had since April to file, but 31 January is the date that sticks in the mind.

So instead of pointing the finger at tardy taxpayers (and fining those who are extra tardy, for good measure), perhaps the Revenue should think more carefully about how to design a system that can cope with a massive annual spike in demand. This is, admittedly, a difficult problem to solve using conventional approaches, but it might repay a spot of lateral thinking on the part of the government's IT mandarins. For example, we hear a lot about utility computing and grids these days -- constellations of loosely coupled servers that are designed to share out tasks and balance heavy loads. Until now, grid computing has had the air of a solution looking for a problem: perhaps we've found a suitable problem in the form of e-government services, and self-assessment in particular.

Glitches such as the one suffered by the Inland Revenue this weekend can only damage the perception of e-government. In an ideal world, not only would the tax system be reformed to make it less fiendishly complex (leading to less taxpayer resistance and fewer self-assessment errors), but the technology at the back end would also be designed to fit in with the way people actually live their lives. There must be a better solution than an expensive advertising campaign that stresses a deadline, a back-end that gets swamped when people respond to that deadline, and a user base that gets fined for -- often blamelessly -- missing that deadline.

If the government can't sort out the self-assessment mess, perhaps it's time to put it out to tender. EasyTax or Virgin Tax, anyone?