Sunday, June 02, 2002

The Inland Revenue's online service for the Self Assessment tax return has been taken offline. Kablenet had the best story. I can't comment on the whys and whats, but I do know that the IR are taking this apparent security breach very seriously. There are a lot of smart people working on it and when the issue is sorted, SA online will be back. In the meantime, if you have a 3rd party software package (like the one available online from Digita) you can use that to file with no issues. On a broader front, this should be sounding some alarms. If the IR can have issues with an online service given the expertise and the experience that they have, then what chance do the smaller departments, agencies and (especially perhaps) the local authorities have? For the last couple of years I've had a pretty consistent theme in my presentations about how hard this Internet stuff is, how unlikely it is that any single department can cope with it and, therefore, how necessary it is to work together. There aren't enough checks in the present process to direct departments to work together, so it has to come from the departments themselves. Natural groups should form around client sectors (students, mothers, etc) or trigger events - (need a loan, looking to change jobs, having first child etc). Trying to take these on in isolation will result in certain failure - whether it's because the service won't meet the client need or it's not interesting enough or it just plain doesn't do what it's supposed to do. I've usually led with the Government Gateway as a prime example of this working together and, more recently, with the UKonline platform that we've developed to host many departments. That's a bit of the puzzle, but it's not all of it. We need to bring focus to these major events and sector groupings so that joint working becomes the norm, expenditure is reduced and all the expertise is concentrated in the right areas. When you visit Amazon, you don't go to different sites to buy DVDs, CDs, or books; when you go to the Sunday Times, there aren't separate user interfaces for the money section or the news review ... how else could it work? So, rather than make people use their brain power to figure out how to work through the government process, we need to harness our brain power on making it easy for people to find what they need - consistent interfaces, simple descriptions, common text and so on. This won't happen by accident. It needs sustained effort and a real willingness to work across government. That means that the constraints that the organisation imposes on us now: accountability, risk aversion, scale and complexity need to be addressed rapidly.

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