It’s Tax Day, and if you’re a software developer, I’ll bet you find it as mystifying as I do. Not the actual tax preparation (mine are still pleasantly straightforward, I’m happy to say), but the general awfulness of the experience. Why am I responsible for collecting PDFs (or worse, paper) from a half-dozen institutions, then manually reentering that data? Why am I paying a vendor $50 for what amounts to some unit tests and an electronic transaction or two?
It makes no sense. Government uses technology for a lot of things, and some of those things are very hard [insert requisite reference to the Apollo Program here]. But filling out forms is not a hard thing. In fact, it’s one of the problems that web technology has tackled first and most comprehensively. The first thing you learn in most web frameworks is how to make forms! It’s hard to think of any other part of the government’s mission that affects so many people negatively and could so easily and obviously be improved by better technology.
The IRS is trying to make progress on this score, of course. E-Filing has been with us since 1986. And they seem excited about the new version of their IRS2Go mobile app. But why on earth would I want a mobile app to help me find the IRS’s YouTube channel?
Here’s a better idea: instead of assuming I want to learn more about how to do my taxes, why not make it so that I can afford to know less about the process? Five minutes in a text editor tells me that my W-2 can be represented in less than 300 bytes — a fraction of a QR code’s capacity. How about promulgating some data standards that would make it easier for me to digitize all those 1099-INTs saying that I earned thirty cents on a checking account? Surely TurboTax or H&R Block would be willing to create some mobile apps that let me input my information by scanning a matrix barcode with my phone.
Better yet: since the agency is already receiving that data from all those financial institutions through a separate stream, how about organizing the data for me and simply letting me sign off on my automatically-generated return? I suspect that a lot of people would like that, given that the alternative is spending a spring day doing paperwork.
Naturally, this is not an original idea. As you’ll see in these fine pieces from United Republic and the New York Times, many people feel that lobbying by firms like Intuit (the makers of TurboTax) has stopped efforts to make filing your taxes less unbearable.
Is this a case of malign influence peddling to prop up an industry that should be partially automated away, or is it just another example of government technology badly lagging behind that of the private sector? Whatever the case might be, here’s hoping something changes soon. The fact that we’re still doing our taxes this way is ridiculous.