“Why”, asked the visiting official from Singapore, “do civil servants have to fill in tax returns?”
He was genuinely puzzled. It was 2000, and the world of e-government was still in its infancy, though more advanced in Singapore than most places. His thought was simple. The government pays its staff in the first place, why should each one of them have to report something the government already knows?
Leaving aside all the complexities of other kinds of income, the question is worth some thought. Would that be a good idea, and if not, why not?
This is an example of a broader question. Nobody likes endlessly repeating themselves. Lots of people get mildly – or even severely – spooked by seeing data supplied in one context popping up in another. The traditional way of doing things was always to ask for everything from scratch. Much of that was practical: it was the only way of getting things done in a primarily paper-based work process. Some of it was doctrinal: the thought that it was important for the customer to provide information, even if the organisation to which they were providing it already held it and could link it to the new requirement, as a way of underlining the customer’s responsibility for it to be correct.
That attitude is still very prevalent, though less absolute than the version held by some until a few years ago. I vividly remember the shock and incredulity on the faces of a line of civil servants at the merest suggestion that information they controlled might be used to make a related transaction simpler, but that was many years ago, and I don’t think their successors would have anything like the same attitude now. Describing it as doctrinal may now be too strong but even if it is not doctrinal, it is deeply rooted habit, and that can be no less strong an influence. In much more recent conversations, I have come across an assumption that the right approach is to collect information from customers and then check it against what is known (or believed to be known), rather than using information already held, updating and correcting as necessary.
That second approach does, of course, raise interesting questions of its own. If you told me your address last year, how likely is it that it will be the same this year? What if you told me ten years ago? How do those probabilities change change according to your age? Or your postcode? At what point, if any, do I want to verify this information? When might I want to verify it again? What if there are two systems holding different addresses?
That last issue can all too readily spiral into self-propagating error. The parliamentary ombudsman has recently reported on just such a case:
We found that once an inputting error had been made, an individual’s personal data could be changed across the network of computer systems used by the bodies involved without the individual’s knowledge or consent; and the network of computer systems could not then always locate the source of any errors made. The lack of provision for users to identify retrospectively and rectify human errors which occur from time to time, as in this case, caused the Ombudsman concern.
Part of what went horribly wrong there might be usefully thought about in terms of the buffers and leeway I talked about in my last post – this case escalated out of control because nobody could or would intervene to fix it.
So there is a need to find a way of creating a buffer which prevents erroneous data circulating uncontrolled and unchecked. Volunteered personal information may well prove to be an important element of the solution, though it doesn’t in itself solve the problem that information once captured and held on a service provider’s database is likely to decay into inaccuracy.
We also need to distinguish between different types of data. I am expert in knowing where I currently live, but there are circumstances in which there are incentives to dissimulate. I am expert in how much I earn, but not necessarily in the precise amount of last year’s taxable income. So there are tensions. Things joined together can keep information aligned and up to date. But those same systems can use those same links to propagate errors. If we hold the information already, we can minimise the data collection burden for new and changed services, but we may miss an opportunity to correct and update what is thought to be known.
In a perfect world, perhaps the best government service would be no service and government could become increasingly invisible. In the present imperfect world, data needs to be checked and challenged. Perhaps there is some merit in civil servants doing tax returns after all.