Sunday, August 02, 2009

Offline Tax - Doing It The Hard Way but, for some, The Only Way

200908021910.jpgI've just spent an afternoon doing a paper Self Assessment Tax Return for someone who is partially sighted. He can't read the forms and certainly can't do it online.

The so-called "Short Form" - only 4 pages long with page 1 being "name and address" and page 4 being "bank account details" - comes with a 25 page guide for how to fill it in (ok, 24 pages, one is left, apparently intentionally, blank.

The guide is littered with advice like this gem at left. I guess the good news is that anyone educated in the 1940s and 50s is probably more capable than those being educated today to do the maths - BODMAS rules ok. But, double brackets in a tax guide? And don't get me started on mixing W8 and 5.3.

But, surely it's time to get real:

1) The bulk of the information required in this case was already available to the government; and, in any case, the amounts involved are so small as to be negligible to the government, even with its current restrictions

Surely, in this age of "tell me once", if a government has the data, they should ask for what they don't have - it all feels a little bit like we're trying to be caught out now, some kind of hide and seek game where if a government says nothing, we may somehow trip up and provide new data

2) Paper-based forms are going to need to be around for a long time. For many years ahead, there will be people who aren't online, who are partially sighted or who can't handle complex online transactions. Make it easier. Big fonts, clearer text, balanced colour schemes designed to enhance readability. But, more importantly, drive the need down through comprehensive reviews of what data the government already has and how it can make better user of it.

3) There needs to be a massive redesign. I appreciate that the short form is already a big deal and much better than the old Self Assessment (which I have to do) which is a couple of dozen pages. But the short form still mixes pensioners, employees and self-employed all in one form. That would, on the basis of this single anecdotal example, appear somewhat like trying to fit too many non-correlated categories into one form for the convenience of the government, not of the citizen. I am the last person to say that the plural of anecdote is data but, nonetheless, I somehow think I'm on strong ground here.

It's 2009. Getting on for 2010. Five years after 100% online as a mission statement, we should be doing better than this.

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