Not every upgrade of a municipality’s infrastructure is genuinely newsworthy. In some ways, the recent announcement by the City of San Francisco that it has streamlined and improved its self service tax payment portal falls into this category of announcement. In ordinary circumstances, this would hardly be news at all.
When one considers the pride with which this news is conveyed by by the city, however, an interesting backstory suggests itself. Their description of this new tax payment system speaks about how citizens can go online, search for various meta-terms which will call up all of their tax payment history and billing, and then generate a single standardized form which will permit them to easily pay their taxes with it.
Conversely, the new system also allows people to quickly and easily make their tax payments online. As an added bonus, the system also automatically generates friendly reminders about when tax payments are due and provides for various other forms of consciousness raising that will, as they say, help reduce late payments and other forms of mistakes made by the general public, such as perhaps paying the right sum towards the wrong account.
While all of these things are admirable, one large question pops up when one thinks about the whole idea that San Francisco, High Priestess of the high-tech world, is just now setting up a system capable of doing these things. Far from being revolutionary, this is actually a case of someone playing catch-up to the rest of the world– which has been utilizing similar technologies for years. What sort of system have Bay Area taxpayers been suffering under prior to this new rollout?
San Francisco has apparently been working on updating their previous system since April of 2016 and serendipitously managed to have it up and running in time for the unexpected flood of business that came at the end of 2017, when the President’s new tax bill changed the way in which local tax payments were treated for federal tax purposes. Given the drastic decrease in the deductibility of these payments for the 2018 calendar year and beyond, many Bay Area residents rushed to pay their taxes before the close of business on December 31st, 2017 to take advantage of one last writeoff before the new tax regime became law.
To its credit, the new system, which replaced and unified four older platforms, performed extremely well. It handled an eight-fold surge in self service tax payments compared to the usual sedate pace of payments at the end of a calendar year. The chaos and recrimination that would have ensued in the event of any glitches cropping up would have been ruinous, so the long horizon which the city employed on its deployment schedule has proven the wisdom of the idea that a patient approach on such a key part of the city’s basic IT infrastructure is better than rushing a buggy system into action prematurely.
In that regard, the IT planners who designed and built the new system have managed to produce a highly-creditable achievement once they finally chose to create a new unified self-service tax payment system to replace a fragmented old interface. Their delay in adopting modern payment systems may have proven to be wisdom in the long run, since their system has apparently avoided the many teething troubles which have afflicted other jurisdictions that adopted similar payment platforms earlier. Learning from the mistakes of others is not a bad way to do business, even if it does not produce the most rapid results.