June 29, 2014

Government web pages

After the American Century

I often have the same experience with web sites set up by governments and monopolistic organizations supported by government:  dysfunctional pages, where the services are hard to use. It requires many clicks to find the information or perform a simple task. For example, when one tries to use the website of the Danish post office system, to tell them when one is on vacation and does not want mail delivered. This proved an impossible  task in over half an hour of trying.  The site kept crashing on me and sending incomprehensible error messages.

In contrast, I had no trouble buying a plane ticket, making hotel reservations, or finding lots of useful information, all provided by people who need to survive in the marketplace.  I realize that this might make me sound like a Republican who wants to reduce government to national defense and farm subsidies, but that is not at all the case.

Some government websites do work well, notably those that provide weather information, which is often of life-and.death importance.  But all too often public services are digitized in order to save money, and to become "more effective," which is often means firing staff and forcing the public to deal with whatever website is substituted.

The solution might be to compare services in different countries and use those that work best as models for others to adapt to their own cultures and circumstances. Most of the needed innovations are probably out there, waiting to be emulated.

So, an example. The Danish tax system, which successfully collects the highest taxes in the world, at least is user-friendly. The citizen can see his tax situation on-line, where most of the needed information is automatically gathered from banks, pension plans, employers, and other institutions. Not only this year's tax is there, but several years previous as well. This particular Big Brother is watching, but they are also communicating what they see, and the taxpayer has a chance to correct or modify it. The taxes may be high, but at least they are extracted with little pain,  and there is a dialogue between citizen and government institution. It is not always the happiest dialogue, of course!

In contrast, another advanced industrial economy, I will not name names, which lies somewhere between Niagara Falls and the Baja California, estimates that a citizen filling out its standard tax form needs a total of 15 hours, or two entire days, to read and understand the basic forms and advice, and then do the calculations needed. The form is blank at the start, and the citizen has to try to remember everything and make no mistakes. (The Danish form is filled in by the tax authorities, and the citizen only has to check the facts, and then make additions or changes.) I know a few people from the other nation, and they tell me that it is often not possible to complete the form in 15 hours without assistance. There is an enormous amount of information on-line, and there are numbers to call for more information, too. But it is a much harder process to negotiate, and once the forms are filled in and delivered, I have it on good authority, one often never hears anything back.  

In Denmark, feedback on all tax returns is made available on a particular date, and the whole country tries to find out at the same time. Now that can cause a cyber traffic jam.