The little yellow book

Once upon a time, smaller employers (which was most of them) sent the tax and NICs they had deducted on behalf of their employees to what was then still quaintly known as the Inland Revenue.  They wrote a cheque for the amount due and put the cheque in an envelope (kindly supplied by the very helpful revenue people), together with a payslip to ensure that the money was credited to the right account.  The payslips came once a year in a yellow book – and seemed to be known as The Yellow Book.

Sometimes, no payment might be due.  The system could cope with that within the standard process – the payslip simply recorded no payment and was sent off as normal (a cheque for no money did not seem to be required).

Then things began to change.  Smaller companies could use internet banking to make payments electronically, and the still very helpful Revenue provided helpful reference numbers to make that possible.  And so the little yellow book, like its little red predecessor, fell victim to the passing of an era.

But there was a problem.  It is not possible to send a payment of nothing through the banking system, so what had become the standard process could no longer handle the exception process.  In the early years of the wild electronic frontier, it didn’t seem that anybody had thought this through – all you could do was not pay, and then resist the temptation to be irritated by the snarky note that came upbraiding you for having failed to make a payment which wasn’t due.  Later (I think – certainly much later in my knowledge), a phone number was provided through which it was possible to tell the Revenue that you weren’t going to give them any money.  That was more cumbersome, and jarred with the core process rather than complementing it – and it certainly didn’t have the pleasing zen-like quality which went with sending nothing through the post.

The obvious missing tool was the ability to provide a simple online notification that no payment was due.  It took a while, but without any fanfare (and so without my being sure quite when) it has surfaced on the HMRC website.  The really striking thing about it is the level of security:  there isn’t any.  That’s entirely sensible – it’s really quite hard to imagine why anybody should seek fraudulently to represent the absence of a debt, except just possibly those running the business, who would have secured access anyway.  Sadly, that level of sensible and pragmatic risk assessment is nowhere near as universal as it should be.

There is something of wider importance lurking behind all this.  Graceful exception handling is in some ways made harder by making the core process self-service.  It is often argued, for some good reasons, that the attempt to bring the exceptions into the core system is a big driver of cost and complexity, resulting in greater cost, slower delivery and greater risk.  A good solution is to find something simple and helpful which, critically, goes with the grain of the core process approach, rather than jarring with it.  It has taken a while, but on this small issue, HMRC seem to have done just that.