If You Didn't See This Coming, You're a Civil Servant…

It’s that time of the year again when the UK Tax website fails to meet the needs of the people.  This seems to happen every year and I can’t quite figure out why.  The deadline for your tax documents to be filed was yesterday but, despite knowing well in advance that there would be a huge surge on the last day, the site dissappeared yesterday morning.

I, for one, can’t understand this.  There is a deadline coming up.  You know with complete certainty that there will be a huge surge of activity on this day.  Why don’t you prepare for it?  Why can’t the capacity handle it?  Why isn’t the solution scalable?  It was reported last year that the HMRC website served 150,000 people in one day (guess which day!).  That’s, on average, 6,250 people an hour, or about 104 people an hour.  In terms of web apps, this is small fry.  Just to prove this, I’ve copied the Alexa stats comparing Amazon.co.uk and HMRC.gov.uk.

HMRC.gov.uk and amazon.co.uk stats

I’ve highlighted the obvious peaks of the two domains.  Note that Amazon serves an order of magnitude more pages than HMRC as a matter of course every day.  Amazon serves more pages on a normal day than HMRC serves on this peal day.  So how come Amazon can do it but HMRC can’t?

Moving The Goalposts

There’s a simple reason this situation arises.  A service such as Amazon needs to be up and running to survive.  If Amazon goes down, even for a day, it will be really struggling to stay in business.  It is essential that the website is available.  Further to this, Amazon are bound by constraint outside of their control.  In the run up to Christmas Amazon saw it’s sales grow significantly.  If it wasn’t prepared for this, Christmas can’t be moved.

Contrast this to the HMRC website.  Last year the website went down.  No one lost their jobs, no tickings off were handed down.  This year, the website goes down and what do they do, they move the goalposts.  Instead of designing a site, architecture and platform that can handle the demand, they simply move the goalposts.  They have extended the submission deadline by 24 hours.  This is the equivalent  of Amazon delaying Christmas by 24 hours so they can meet their delivery targets.

As someone who’s worked on Government IT projects, I can guarantee that meeting the level of demand yesterday was not considered or budgeted for.  Civil servants don’t plan, they fire fight.

I for one would love to see someone at HMRC stand up and take responsibility for this.  Why can’t HMRC build a fairly simple website that’s capable of dealing with a moderate amount of traffic?  There is a project manager somewhere deep within HMRC that either isn’t smart enough to realise that there’s going to be this surge in demand on tax day, or, they were aware the demand was coming but wasn’t competant enough to build in enough capacity.

At the end of the day, no doubt the argument comes down to money.  Building a system than can cope with 150,000 visitors in 24 hours probably costs a significant amount of money.  Surely it’s cheaper to build a system that can cope with 50,000 visitors and hope for the best.  Right?  Well, no.  Considering the amount of money it’s going to cost the government to move Christmas Tax Day, this is a massive false economy.

Come on HMRC.  Wake up and smell the bleeding obvious.