What really happened to the SA website in January?
The self assessment online filing ran "more slowly than otherwise would have been the case", but did not fail in late January, The Inland Revenue told AccountingWEB.
Both AccountingWEB users and industry insiders reported that for all practical purposes, the SA Online server failed on Sunday 30 January and was only intermittently available to Web users during the final few days. The Revenue acknowledged the situation with online and press statements apologising for "the disruption to the service".
But in reply to a set of questions from AccountingWEB about the site's performance over the final days leading up to the 31 January self assessment deadline, the Revenue said the problem was not to do with the availability of the SA website itself, but was caused by an unanticipated bottleneck between the self assessment Web Gateway and the back-office mainframe that declines or accepts tax returns and issues acknowledgements. The queue that built up eventually clogged up the system.
A Revenue spokesman commented, "The service was available throughout January, but we acknowledge that there were some customers experiencing slow response times."
As a Web publisher, AccountingWEB knows that it is technically feasible to add more servers to handle heavier than usual traffic loads, for example on Budget day. The Revenue and its contractor ASPIRE said they had undertaken capacity planning and volumetric testing to establish the peak load requirement for the SA deadlline. No extra mirror sites/web services were available in the final few days, but according to the Revenue's internal analysis, "The problems encountered were not capacity ones."
Without divulging what specific measures would be taken, the Revenue spokesman said, "We will work closely with our IT partners to make sure that the problems we experienced with the success/failure messages do not recur next year."
The Revenue said it is looking into the experiences of agents to improve and streamline the online service they get. The National Audit Office is also studying the Revenue's handling of self assessment tax returns - including the performance of its online systems.
To help inform both of these processes, this article offers some insights from TaxZone and AccountingWEB members from the final week of the 2003/04 tax season and puts forward some of the agents' own suggestions for improvements.
Internal SA bottleneck?
One reason the internal bottleneck may not have been diagnosed earlier is because the ASPIRE consortium took over responsibility for the Inland Revenue's computers from EDS last year. That meant ASPIRE was having to analyse vulnerabilities of a system it did not design.
Warning last year that the Revenue's computer system was likely to suffer transitional glitches, IT Zone consultant editor David Carter commented, " No one at the Revenue knows how it works, no-one at Cap Gemini knows. Only the people who wrote it really know how it works, and now the Revenue has decided to dump them."
Support and communication issues
Officially, self assessment online was a success for the 2003/04 tax year. With 1.6m returns filed online, there was a 48% increase on the previous year. But it is clear from contemporary postings on AccountingWEB that the messages from the Revenue to frustrated taxpayers and agents - when they arrived - were not always consistent or helpful.
While officially there were no additional servers on standby to cope with the extra traffic, Revenue officals said on the 30th and 31st (and were quoted in several press reports) that bandwidth had been increased - without saying how.
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In spite of the explanation that the self assessment site did not fail, David Evans informed the online community on Sunday 30 January that his attempts to connect to the SA Online site with IRIS software were met with the following responses, "The request has been acknowledged by the Gateway" and "Polling Gateway for a response" until the system timed him out.
When the website stopped responding, several AccountingWEB members commented on the site that they were unable to get through to the Helpdesk too.
On the final Sunday, AccountingWEB member Stephen Quay did get through to the Helpdesk by sending a fax. The official who replied to him that afternoon explained that the problem was with the machine that validated returns for acceptance or failure. But another AccountingWEB member, Bob M, told the community later the same day that he saw an online message saying the Inland Revenue site was unavailable and undergoing maintenance.
The official Revenue response is that no maintenance was undertaken on the 30th. As a spokesman told TaxZone editor Andrew Goodall that Sunday, "There is no question that we would schedule any maintenance work on what is the busiest weekend for the system."
In reply to a follow-up question, the official commented that responses such as "Unavilable due to maintenance", "Remote call procedure failed", and "Page cannot be displayed" appear to be browser driven, "as we did not put any of these messages out during the peak weekend".
AccountingWEB member Ian Clark commented: "Wonder if the Inland Revenue will learn from this, and give us a real status on their website, or even better give us agents a different filing gateway from the individuals who seemed to clog up the system over the weekend, presumably most of them using IR software, rather than external software?"
A separate server for agents?
David Griffiths backed Clark's call for separate filing facilities for agents. "In most cases, the individuals will be completing the return on screen, taking their time, and perhaps going off for coffee etc, while still logged in. Agents, on the other hand, usually have the return fully prepared and just need a few seconds to file it and log off."
Apart from delays in connecting to the SA Online site, several agents highlighted ongoing problems with matching their 64-8 authorisations from clients to the individuals' universal tax reference (UTR) online. During the final week, the lists visible to agents on their SA Online pages did not appear to be updated. This specific glitch reflected a wider concern over the Revenue's apparent inability to match 64-8s to agents. Philip Easton pointed out that the 64-8 problems fell into the grey area between the SA online system and the Government Web Gateway.
The Revenue is so regularly subjected to criticism from all directions that it has developed a habit one informant described as "initial denial-silence-admission". By this measure, once the Revenue admits it is probably well on the way to dealing with the situation. Revenue officials have been willing to reply to our questions, but their replies suggest they may not have reached the "admission" stage just yet. That may require conclusions from other reviews besides this one.
We have already identified some of the communication problems and raised the concern over whether the ASPIRE consortium knows how to sort out the flaws in the EDS-designed SA Online architecture. But the most pressing questions for the Revenue's own review concern its planning and investment in the system.
AccountingWEB actively supports the move to online filing, and applauds the 48% increase in online returns submitted. But unless HM Revenue and Customs can cope with such increases in online filing, for example by ensuring there are adequate servers and support staff to handle the load, it will hand a stick to opponents of online filing.
We look forward to hearing contributions from the AccountingWEB/TaxZone communities and seeing the results of the NAO and internal Revenue reviews before the 2004/05 tax season gets underway.