UK taxpayers deserve better

This has been an inauspicious week for online public services delivery in the UK. Last week, the Liberal Democrats said the...

This has been an inauspicious week for online public services delivery in the UK. Last week, the Liberal Democrats said the Inland Revenue's online tax return system costs the public nearly four times more than the original postal method. The per-person cost online is £212, compared to £60 under the existing system, the party claimed.

Now the Government has admitted that the £17m it has ploughed into migrating tax returns online will only be justified if more people can be persuaded to use the service and its user base achieves a critical mass.

Last year we invited Computer Weekly readers to recount the fun and games they had had trying to file their tax returns online. Their responses suggest the Government faces a long wait before the system becomes financially viable.

"Round and round I went, but I could not find a way to get the Web site to accept my return," said one. "In the end I had to join the ranks of the defeated, print off the return and send it by post."

"Will I use the online system again next year? No chance, unless it changes for the better," said another.

The Government faces the classic chicken and egg conundrum: the online tax return system will only improve when more people have been persuaded to subscribe, and yet people look unlikely to subscribe in numbers until the system improves.

Surely public sector project scoping and cost-benefit analysis should be founded on a more stable premise than a blind faith that systems will magically improve as a result of increased use? What ever happened to the concept of designing failsafe systems, with milestones in place to ensure satisfactory and timely project delivery?

We taxpayers deserve a more systematic and measured approach to the delivery of public services online.

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