Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Destruction By Default

Digital by Default is, I think, a good and well-meaning objective.  In 2011, why would you have a service that wasn't designed to be used digitally (with appropriate consideration given to access by those who aren't or can't get online)?

There is, though, a problem in that it implies, even if subtly, that we're continuing on the path set in 2001 with "100% online by 2005" - that is, that all offline services have an online equivalent and, indeed, that government itself continues to provide many services.

In 2006, when DVLA first put their tax disc service online (to my surprise), I wondered why government was involved (at all) in the tax disc process.  

And so I'd like to propose that the flagship policy be "Destruction by Default" - the first question is "do we need this at all?", the second is "does government need to be involved at all?"

It's definitely harder to find services that would succeed in the first category - ones that we could get rid of tomorrow.   It would be easiest to continue what has already been started - website rationalisation, data centre consolidation, shared services, back office consolidation and so on.  But if you start with true services and say "what can we just not do" that feels hard.  So let's skip that and come back to it.

Considering services on the basis of whether government needs to be involved at all is easier.

Tax Discs (to repeat an earlier topic)

Insurance companies give you a tax disc when you buy insurance and come up with some clever model to wrap that cost so that it appears cheaper.  Better still, there isn't any such thing as a "tax disc" only "tax" - after all, no one makes me wear a coloured sticker on my forehead when I've paid my VAT bill.

Council Tax

Today council tax is calculated for your property based on a price for your property calculated by a wing of HMRC known as the Valuations Office.  The work was done years ago and so your house is valued, as far as VOA are considered, as it was 20 years ago.  It probably doesn't matter when the value was calculated.  If your house was expensive in 1991 it's probably more expensive now; if your house was built since then, it has a new value attached to it.

What if you calculated council tax on the basis of electricity used?  Big houses with big families use lots of electricity, big houses with single occupants use less, small houses with elderly occupants use less still.  The tax is levied on your electricity bill in the same way that VAT is collected by stores, and then handed to government each quarter (or more regularly when smart meters come if desired).

This has (at least) one real benefit and one glaring flaw.  The benefit is that this could act as a super-incentive for becoming greener - not only would you save electricity costs by being smarter about what you left on overnight, but you could save tax.  The flaw is that governments - local or central - like their budgets to be clear and fixed at the start of the year and if you reduced electricity consumption during the year (or installed solar panels and so collected money perhaps), you would leave a hole in the tax budget.   Still, I like it.

To be continued ...

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