Why Government shouldn’t do UI

[Update:  I’ve kept this here for historical interest, although it still has a few useful things to say about process and structure for government UI.  The Corporation Tax system is now properly web-based!]

OK, it’s the New Year and being in a positive frame of mind I’d better start with some nice things to say…

The UK regulation of small companies is on the whole “light touch”, and it’s a whole lot easier to start and run a micro-business here than in many other countries, and indeed than it was when I started my first consultancy business 20-odd years ago.  The move to towards universal electronic filing is undoubtedly the Right Thing for efficiency at both ends.  Some IT people in HMRC & Companies House obviously do see the big picture, and more power to their executive elbows.

But you may have guessed that this paean of praise is not going to last for the whole posting.  You’d be right.

On the third day of Christmas, the taxman gave to me…

The problem is that however magnificent the Government’s Grand Plan for back-end integration and efficient online processes, the public-facing user interface (UI) is almost uniformly abominable.  The most egregious example which I have suffered recently is undoubtedly HMRC’s online Company Tax Return filing system.  I had to file two simple returns (CT600 Short Version) over the Christmas/New Year break (known in our household as “the Accounting Period”), but what should have taken an hour each took about two days, and I’m still not entirely sure that they were submitted correctly.

How dost thou fail me?  Let me count the ways…

  1. The interface is a downloadable “application” in a PDF.  To use it you have to go through an arcane ten-step process to grant additional privileges to the document.  Ordinary users should never be made to do this kind of thing routinely, because it makes them too blasé about randomly changing security settings they have no understanding of.
  2. The response time to every single click and field entry is at least 5 seconds, sometimes 30.
  3. The saving process is slow and unreliable – in one case crashing and losing both the open document and the saved file.  After that I backed up the file before saving each time.
  4. The form validation rules are not up to date with even two-year old changes in legislation.  At least up until October 2010 the form did not allow Small Pool Allowance, which was introduced in April 2008!  It took me a dozen phone calls to establish that my only option was to do the computations manually and attach them as a PDF – which is what I would have done in half an hour absent the online service in any case!  It’s possible that the October release fixed this, but I didn’t realise this until it was too late – and of course, because it’s a fixed download it didn’t just update itself as a Web-based service would – I would have had to re-enter all the data.
  5. Some figures such as turnover have to be entered identically three times.
  6. There is no ‘memory’ of previous year’s values, but these still have to be entered, meaning dredging up figures that HMRC already know!
  7. The tax due has to be entered in the first accounts section, but isn’t calculated until the third, CT600 section.  So you have to do your calculatons manually beforehand (not that I wouldn’t do it as a check in any case)
  8. After submission it refuses to print out a copy of the submitted CT600 form.  It does generate the accounts, but in badly formatted HTML which it opens Internet Explorer to display (as you may guess, IE is not my default browser).
  9. … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

Clearly, the most fundamental problem here is the choice of a locally-resident PDF ‘app’ rather than a conventional Web-based form.  Then on top of this there is just poor implementation and lack of testing, combined with an appalling lack of user support.  You have to pinch yourself here and remember that this isn’t some bespoke internal application knocked out on the cheap by some back-bedroom programmer; as of FY10/11 this is the only open-access way to submit Corporation Tax returns.  The only other option is (often ludicrously expensive) commercial software.

What’s behind the green curtain?

So let’s step back a little, calm down and wonder why this came about.  Clearly someone thought a downloadable PDF was the right thing to do;  I can think of two possible reasons for this:

  1. Out of some (misplaced) feeling that people would not want to enter all these details into an online service.  I say misplaced because the whole purpose of the system is to file these details either to the public record or to HMRC.  Storing it locally as well arguably makes the security of the whole solution worse, not better, especially when it requires granting unlimited local privileges.
  2. To align the HMRC’s free offering with conventional commercial software which submits “iXBRL” format data directly to the back end.  Of course, a front end could be (and should be) created in Web forms just as easily, but this does at least indicate some strategic architectural thought is going on, even if the tactical execution is currently dire.

So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume someone has a Grand Vision of a three-tier architecture, with HMRC sitting at the business logic and data storage tiers, and leaving the presentation layer (UI) to someone else.  Not a bad concept, really…

Why Government UI fails

So why do the Government’s attempts at user interface fail so badly?  I think it mainly comes down to that inevitable creator of poor goods and services:  monopoly.  In the majority of cases the ‘official’ interface is the only one, and hence the consumer’s choice is simply (a) put up with it or (b) fail to comply with legislation, with resulting fines, hassle and business risk.  There is no commercial incentive to solicit feedback, offer support or timely fixes – things even some companies in competitive markets fail to get right, but not for long!

The other issue is the way that Government services are ‘siloed’, each creating their own (poor) user interfaces, with no consistency of design or usability, shared platforms or data.  It also means a lack of common code base and hence all those good old fashioned software engineering ideas of code re-use go out of the window.

Is there a solution?

Although the online Corporation Tax system’s user interface is as classic an example of poor UI you could (not) wish for, the underlying multi-tier architecture may point towards a solution.  The current systems are not ideal, though, because they are effectively write-only – you can submit, but cannot read back previous year’s data – hence the need to re-enter so much.  So the ideal solution would be something like:

  • A consistent set of standard Web services for all Government interactions
  • A single authentication mechanism (the Government Gateway is approaching this)
  • A competitive market for both free and paid-for user interfaces – both standalone ‘thick client’ and Web-based ‘thin client’.

Keeping it free (at the point of use)

So this offers the possibility of the UI being opened up to competition, and possibly, given their dodgy record in the area, the Government agencies concerned should stand aside from the race.  Clearly paid-for software or online services have an immediate business model but how could we stimulate people to create free software to replace the Government’s current (poor) offerings?

  • Firstly, the Free Software movement has already created the most amazing generic software such as Linux, Firefox and OpenOffice.org.  It does less well with relatively niche products such as tax filing user interfaces for one particular nation’s companies or individuals.  Perhaps the community could build a platform for creating them which could be of international use?
  • Secondly, for online services there’s a conventional revenue stream in advertising – but again some of these systems have a relatively small user base.  A sufficiently broad offering could capture a large market, though.
  • Perhaps most radically, the Government could pay the user interface provider for every successful submission.  This might sound unlikely in the present climate, but obviously they had to pay for creation of their existing systems, however bad, and presumably every online filing saves a measurable amount of time for a civil servant re-entering data from a printed form.  So a small payment (a few £?) to the software company or service provider should not be out of the question.  Think of it as a kind of affiliate scheme for Government transactions…

Wishful thinking?

So is this just an impossible dream?  Perhaps not:  there are clearly strategic moves in the right direction within Government, it’s just the tactical delivery – particularly for front end user interface – which is failing.  As in all systems engineering, the key point is to properly define an open interface, and then let the market do the rest.  Oh, and if you work in Government and are thinking of writing a new consumer-facing user interface, either Just Say No or get some professional user interface designers on the case, please!

Wishing you Happy and Competitive New Year


4 Replies to “Why Government shouldn’t do UI”

  1. While I didn’t experience some of what I expect were the most annoying problems such as delays after filling in each box on the PDF form I agree the current offering from HMRC is terrible. I’ve written an article on my views at:


    I was shocked to see the HMRC form ask for login details for Companies House, betraying a lack of co-operation and trust between the two arms of the Government.

    The underlying aim of the HMRC to collect more structured data saving them manual work is excellent.

    My own prime concern is the impact this will have on small businesses. I think if people think they have to employ an accountant, and/or purchase expensive accounting software to run the simplest businesses they will be deterred from starting up, or incorporating and growing businesses they are running as sole-traders. The UK needs to be encouraging people to start and run companies.

    1. Absolutely, Richard – I saw your post while in the middle of the CT600 pain and Googling for answers, but forgot to reference it in the post – apologies. Your point about barriers to startup is really what I was talking about at the beginning, but didn’t make explicit at the end – thanks for improving it!

  2. Yes. I see that next year my home-grown Python scripts and hand-crafted ASCII accounts will have to generate iXBRL. Whimper.

  3. I’ve just done my personal tax self assessment, and the contrast is startling.

    OK, there are a few minor niggles (why block trailing carriage returns on information fields??), but compared to the CT600 this is a paragon of UI design. It’s completely online (standard Web forms), using standard Government Gateway login, gives you good feedback on where you are, fast (far faster than the CT600 PDF, even though it’s doing server round-trips), and has history of previous years.

    So, HMRC folk, please get whoever built your personal SA online forms to build a front end for CT as well!

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