UK Companies House: an end user nightmare

In the UK, limited liability companies have to file a ream of documents with Companies House. In very much the same way the SEC works.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

In the UK, limited liability companies have to file a ream of documents with Companies House. In very much the same way the SEC works. Only Companies House electronic filing system - just like many UK public sector  IT projects - is an unholy mess. So common is the problem of failure that I anticipate Mike Krigsman will have a rich seam to mine for many years to come. Only last month, the UK Sunday Times reported:

A Ministry of Justice IT project that is three years overdue and double its original cost has been condemned as a “masterclass” of sloppy Government management.

The system, intended to give prison and probation officers real-time access to offenders' records, is in a “class of its own” in troubled Whitehall IT projects, according to the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee.

Even when projects are delivered, they continue to cause problems. Yesterday, Jake Stride, CEO of Tactile CRM was twittering his grumpiness at problems he was experiencing with Companies House as he tried to file a document with a change of address. How hard can that be?

I know Jake reasonably well. He is a talented software engineer and so doesn't count as a person who is less than super tech savvy. He also knows that as a saas CRM provider, you've always got to be at the top of your game.

"Blog the issues" I said and he has. Here is most of the story entitled Companies House website sucks (slightly edited for brevity and my emphasis added):

My first issue came when submitting the completed return - I got a blank screen. Several refreshes later still no luck, so I call Companies House. After several calls and being given different numbers I finally find somebody who can help me out (10 minutes). It turns out that when you fill out your contact details at the end of the process, if you put your email address AND your mobile number it won’t work - bizarrely it doesn’t tell you this.

At this point I can’t go back so I have to complete the return again (another 5 minutes). This time I know the trick to submit and get a reference (called an envelope code on their system), so I now get the privilege of having to pay £15 to send them the information. [by post]  Great.

At this point I am shipped out to the diabolical NetBanx system to pay. After completing my card details I get an error saying the card details were wrong (they weren’t), so I clicked the link provided to update them. This took me to another error page saying my email address was invalid (it wasn’t, and it didn’t flag it up the first time either), so I click the link to go back and update the details as it tells me. This takes me back to the error page saying my card details were wrong (I haven’t had a chance to change them yet).

After a few clicks it’s another call to Companies House, the lady kindly tells me they don’t (and have never taken card payments by phone), I correct her and tell her I have had to do this several times before in previous years. I use one of the other numbers, get told the correct one, the lady kindly tells me she will get somebody to ring me back (another 10 minutes wasted).

About an hour later a very nice lady calls and takes my card details and the return is filed.

Total cost: £15 and over half an hour.

It was only due to me persistence that this got done, I don’t why it is so difficult.

What we have here are persistent process failures at both the software and manual levels. When things go wrong you expect there to be ready access to a call center where you will be given reliable information. Apparently not in this case. How crazy is that? What's worse, the user has to pay for when the system doesn't work. That's unacceptable but time and again this type of problem occurs. Imagine the imputed cost when this work is handed to third party professionals for processing on your behalf?

Jake is right: Companies House website does indeed suck. As with many government IT projects it's never 'our' money at stake in the business sense. It is hardly surprising then that these problems drag on. Given the financial constraints under which we're all operating, I wonder if there is a likelihood of progress? I'm not holding my breath.

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