Tax filing season is always an inspiration for both good and bad stories about the use of technology in government.
As an analyst covering e-government, I self-inflicted the pain of filing taxes online for a few years. Although Italy was pretty high on the EU ranking for this particular service, the experience has never been painless. I have been filing taxes online for at least five years, until 2007, and I always experienced a poor user interface, very limited support for prefilling forms with data that government already possessed and, most of all, a terrible customer service.
In fact, I was being invariably notified that my filing was incorrect due to some peculiarities of my wife’s income at the time. As she was working as a temporary teacher, she was getting several income statements from the various schools she had been working for during a given calendar year. Partly because of the user-unfriendliness of the filing system and partly due to my own ignorance and inaccuracy, she always ended up receiving a letter the year after, notifying that the filing was incorrect and she had to pay a certain amount of money. However, when we were getting this letter concerning our filing for, say, year 2005, we had already submitted the filing for 2006, therefore carrying forward the mistake year over year. It goes without saying that the online form did not offer any help to balance things out.
Therefore, after several years of failed attempts at demonstrating to me and my wife the value of e-government, I reverted to what most people, who are smarter than me, do. I used an intermediary (which is sometimes paid by the employer itself) who would file taxes on my behalf and make sure that my tax debit or credit would be paid on my salary two months after the deadline for filing.
This process is entirely manual. I go with my income forms, insurance policies, medical expenses to the intermediary office. An employee takes care of me and fills an electronic form, and even provides advice about how to be more tax efficient (for instance by balancing children deductions between me and my wife). This year I had to rush to the intermediary in between two long trips and when I showed up earlier than scheduled, they served me immediately. Unfortunately I had forgotten part of the documents, but the employee was extremely kind, and suggested that I sent the missing document by email and then come again (or send my wife if I had already left). She gave me her direct phone number and when we rang back she told us to show up at any time, which I did before boarding on my flight to Sydney.
It goes without saying that this experience was far more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done online with government. Ironically, just a few days ago I received a letter from the tax agency, very similar to those that were reminding me that I had made a mistake. You can imagine my trepidation when I opened it (“not again!”), but – to my surprise – this time the letter was telling me that calculations were correct and there was some excess in my favor. While when I owed money, the letter indicated a 45 or 60 day deadline to show up at one of their local branches as well as the amount due, this time there is no information about how much money the agency owes me, and I have time until the end of the year. Interesting perspective about customer service again.
Sometimes I wonder whether certain government agencies can even spell “customer service”. Interestingly enough, though, when I get in contact with government employees, including the tax agency, they happen to be courteous and very helpful.
The bottom line of all this is that the human touch, the ability to understand a customer’s situation, including his or her context, constraints and frustrations, is essential for government service delivery. Governments have pursued online service delivery, often in a rush toward the faster, the smarter, the most comprehensive online offering. But uptake for many services remains low. One of the reasons is that people are looking for better services and not only for electronic services.
While governments plan to consolidate contact centers and steer citizens toward the use of online channels, people who may have more time because they lost their jobs or may wish to talk to a person as they are confused about their social security or fiscal situation, get a pretty web site or an automatic voice response.
I for one have consistently found that intermediated or counter-based services can often be far better than online ones. The value of online government is for people to get the necessary information about how to do things or about the status of their case, but when it comes to important steps in a process, they may want to have a face to talk to.
Unfortunately the mantra that government has to be 100 percent online and – more recently – the need for radical reductions in the cost of government operations give little hope about citizen service levels. This is why governments must encourage the emergence of intermediaries as well as explore the use of social networking to replace at least in part the warm feeling of talking to a person who seems to be caring about you.