Starting with an incubator involving people from large and small business firms, Inland Revenue found out what the firms wanted in an online service and created a requirement that the government agency should administer corporate tax returns over the Internet. The result is a personalized portal for companies, where they can register, see their tax status with the department and conduct a number of transactions involving forms and payments.

Cleaner, Accurate Data

Glassberg said the application's benefits are threefold: simpler, quicker and cheaper. For example, onscreen validation means simple math errors are caught and corrected before the form is filed. The system masks other types of complexity that typically appear on a paper form. And for those who use the service, refunds are mailed out as quickly as three days after filing.

For Inland Revenue, the new service means it gets cleaner, more accurate data. Eventually, the department will benefit from some cost savings as it sheds manual processes that are no longer necessary. How much is unclear, because it's not known how many staff will be diverted into other areas, such as customer service, or will become redundant. The agency is working with the British trade unions to sort out that eventuality in a cordial manner. Currently, Inland Revenue provides live customer service until 10 p.m. seven days a week.

But one of the agency's transformation goals is to gather data about its Web-based tax content and improve the quality of customer service. This can be done by tracking the type of queries that come through e-mail, according to Glassberg, and then looping that knowledge back into the content that appears in the form of advice on the Web site.

Hopefully, the 80 percent of users who have basic queries will find the answers online, because Inland Revenue, like the IRS, is strapped for cash, according to Glassberg. "You have to make calls on what level of personal support you are willing to provide. You've got to have a holistic approach to customer service," he added. "You can't just offer round-the-clock operator service. Our call centers are open late, but then we look to the Web to provide answers to the questions they have."

Boosting the Numbers

In 2002, just 80,000 taxpayers used Inland Revenue's Web-based services, well below what was originally projected. The numbers for this year are looking better, though it's still early in the tax season for the United Kingdom to judge just how much better. "We're beginning to see quite an encouraging gradient of take-up," said Glassberg. "But we recognize we're still only hitting the early adopters."

To boost those numbers, Inland Revenue is planning to spend large sums on marketing, advertising and promotion. At the same time, the agency is putting enormous effort into fine-tuning the service so it works right every time a new user logs and files.

But Glassberg is a realist about the new world of computerized tax services. Getting it right the first time is wishful thinking, whether it's the technology or the marketing to bring users to the service, or attracting third-party vendors to offer their own versions of the software. So, Inland Revenue has adopted what it calls the "build and learn" method of application development.

"You have to go into these projects saying, you'll get it wrong, badly wrong in the early days," Glassberg explained. "The only way to learn in the Internet space is to build in bite-sized chunks, growing the application incrementally and learning from your customers."

Surely, Lady Godiva and King Charles would have approved.

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor