Opinion

Thought for the day:Taxing issues for e-government

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.I've been sitting here for ages trying to come up with an appropriate football theme but all I can think of is "Own goals", the very best fumble of the last month going to the Inland Revenue which, obligingly, allowed people filing their tax returns online to view details of other peoples' returns.

Given the Revenue's unenviable record for losing information and blaming the subsequent disappearance on the citizen, this new "twinning" feature isn't such a bad idea, as you will at least know that you have a totally random and independent witness in another tax district, who has read your personal financial details and can support your claim that your information is on the system.

What the Revenue will do after this is anyone's guess but last year, over a period of months, I received several bloodcurdling demands for my PIID.

After faxing copies personally and through my accountants three times, with covering letters, they finally conceded that they weren't going to repossess my children after all.

Electronic government is, of course, a subject I think about regularly and when you scrape away its cling-film wrapping of rhetoric and shiny technology, you're left with a central proposition that is based upon trust.

Rather like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, we need to believe that the Red Sea will, indeed, part, with a little help from Microsoft, and that our tax returns and anything else transacted digitally with government, will arrive on "the other side", complete, secure and with its feet still dry.

In many respects, we are, in the UK, a shining example to the rest of the world when it comes to the development of our own e-government processes.

This kind of accolade may draw cynical smiles from readers but foreign governments, including even the Iranians, admire the very structured planning and the effort to define a common standard, which underpins the 2005 vision of joined-up government.

Of course, the problem isn't so much in the planning as in the delivery, whether this happens to involve air traffic control systems or PAYE.

Regardless of how good the software and hardware might happen to be, the integration, connecting all the front end "stuff" to the back-end stuff, quite possibly through an XML cloud, appears to be constantly fraught with the potential for disaster.

I'm never entirely sure these days whether the monumental cock-ups that constantly plague the public sector are the result of technology being cynically oversold by big corporations, or are the responsibility of senior civil servants who still believe in fairies.

If you work in IT long enough, you learn that the more integrated, ambitious and expensive a project, the less likely it is to work first time or even at all, which is why all the biggest players in the hardware business are switching into the more lucrative services game and have developed a healthy interest in e-government.

Unfortunately, embarrassment is the heavy price of progress and e-government, like football, looks very much like a game of two halves.

Do you admire New labour's attempts at e-government? >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and ramblings of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores

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This was first published in June 2002

 

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