2002 IT skills survey: Communication breakdown

Software giant Sage has this week urged the Inland Revenue to engage in consultation with the industry in a bid to successfully deliver its much-criticised e-services.

The company has expressed a desire to meet with the government agency following the results of the fourth Sage/Accountancy Age IT skills survey, published overleaf, which found a staggering 55% of those polled do not have confidence in the agency delivering e-services.

Sage argues that with the expertise readily available in the industry, consultation is crucial to iron out, or reduce, the risk of further high-profile disasters, as the government moves towards putting all of its services online.

With the level of influence the accounting industry has over business, a lack of support could prove to be a disaster if the drive to get companies online is to be successful. Sage believes it is imperative that the Revenue forms a closer working relationship.

Companies such as Sage have in the past offered their assistance to the Revenue, only to have received limited, if any, interest.

Lacking necessary infrastructure

Jerry Luckett, general manager of Sage’s accountants division, says: ‘Many (accountants) do not believe the necessary infrastructure is in place to make e-service delivery a reality. It is vital for the Revenue to work closely with the industry to ensure it feels confident to deliver services.

‘Accountants are a key influence on UK business and therefore we’d welcome the opportunity for all interested parties – accountants, accounting bodies and the Inland Revenue – to meet to discuss how we can work together to ensure future electronic delivery of services is a success’.

The Revenue maintains it is increasingly heading down a route that includes commercial partners. A spokeswoman says: ‘We do have liaisons with commercial organisations, although not necessarily with Sage. We will continue to liaise with these IT-related organisations to exchange information and assistance.

‘We recognise as a department that IT is the way forward. We do have an informal line of communication with accountancy bodies – and it is an active line established over a number of years. We will continue to explore the relationship with accountants across the UK.’

Revenue IT disaster

The most recent disaster occurring on the the Revenue’s much-maligned online tax return website, which is used by around 75,000 people, found users reporting seeing information from other taxpayers on the site.

The site has been dogged by controversy since its launch with users criticising it for being too complicated, while a series of site suspensions and security problems have hampered the perception of the service.

The latest security hole – which forced the Inland Revenue to shut down its self-assessment online service – was caused by a single internet service provider.

Government e-envoy Andrew Pinder revealed the problem seems to lie with the users of one unnamed ISP.

‘The Inland Revenue has to answer for this itself, what appears to have happened occurred on one day with one ISP and how it interacted with the Revenue. It is unusual and we are not very happy about it,’ he says.

The Revenue insists it is working to resolve the problem. A spokesman says: ‘We do not disagree with Mr Pinder but this is subject to an ongoing investigation. We want it back online as soon as we can but the security of our customers’ data is of paramount importance to us.’

The breach is yet another IT embarrassment for the government as SA Online was delivered late and was then backed by a £1.9m advertising campaign following its launch in 2000. It may also damage the government’s targets of getting individuals to file tax returns online by 2010.

However, since the suspension, technical staff have been working round the clock to solve the problem.

Lack of confidence in service

To compound the difficulties faced by the government agency, according to the IT skills survey, only 28% say they have confidence in the service, with a further 17% undecided. Additionally, a further 67% say they are not very likely to take advantage of electronically delivered services from the Revenue, while a further 23% remain undecided.

Although seemingly damning of the Revenue, Sage argues that accountants are as pro-technology and forward-thinking as any other industry, but suggest they need to feel reassured that e-services can work reliably.

Added to this, the level of demand from accountants’ clients for the delivery of services electronically is still negligible, with 78% reporting no or low demand.

However, on the plus side, the percentage of services which accountants believe could be delivered online remains high.

Despite a fall on last year’s figure of 78%, some 73% still believe tax returns can be delivered online, a figure from which Revenue can take great heart.

A further 67% believe payroll services can be delivered online (70% last year), 42% say final accounts could be, rising from 37% last year. A further 38% say online bookkeeping services could be delivered electronically and 6% say audit work is suitable.

So while there may still be technical hurdles to clear, and a great deal of reassuring to be done by the Revenue, there is still a lot to commend regarding e-services, and accountants could play a large part in the creation of safe and reliable online delivery.

Click here to view the results of the survey

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