Online tax return. Photo: GDS/CC BY 2.0
In this entry, Kylie Havelock, the head of product at Citizens Advice, looks at the changes that could come from digital tax and benefits. This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak
The purpose of this article is to explore the opportunities for technology to improve the tax and benefit systems. I’ve drawn on existing ideas and taken inspiration from elsewhere, to propose potential new models. I’ve also described areas that Citizens Advice is already exploring, and what we might be looking at next.
At Citizens Advice, we help millions of people every year to apply for benefits. However, every year in the UK it’s estimated £10bn of benefits go unclaimed, and take-up levels have remained fairly static.
The largest proportion of unclaimed benefit is pension credit, where 40% of older people who are eligible aren’t claiming. This means £2.5bn isn’t going to low-income households. For housing benefit, one million households are missing out on £3.1bn at a time when housing costs are increasingly unaffordable.
To tackle unclaimed benefits, we can explore opportunities within different parts of the system: eligibility, triggers, outreach, and form filling.
To apply for benefits in the current system, people must first understand whether they are eligible. There are a number of online tools that can help people to understand their eligibility; for example, Turn2Us, EntitledTo, and Policy in Practice.
Another way in which we might tackle unclaimed benefits is to look at “triggers” within the process. What first prompts people to apply for benefits, and how might we extend or amplify those triggers?
To take an international example; in Canada the tax and benefit systems are administered by the same government department. Filing a tax return triggers the government to calculate whether you’re entitled to federal benefits – and if so, to pay those benefits to you directly.
This connection between taxes and benefits (for the working population) seems obvious. What might the impact be if the government assessed income data proactively, and sent notifications to low-income households encouraging them to apply for benefits for which they may be eligible?
This is a huge unexplored area that would require rigorous hypotheses testing. Data sharing would be key. HMRC and DWP already frequently exchange information in a number of ways, including “real time” income data as part of the Universal Credit application process, so we know that technology could enable this.
“This connection between taxes and benefits seems obvious. What if the government sent notifications to low-income households?”
In the charity sector we do lots of work around what’s traditionally known as “outreach”. Citizens Advice have advisers in many community settings – including food banks and GP surgeries – helping people to access government services. Beyond these physical settings, how might we use technology as a form of outreach? Some ideas:
Targeted adverts on social media
Tailored advice on our website
Syndicated content on partner websites
A huge amount of time is spent on form filling so any improvements even small have potentially big gains. We already provide online advice on how to fill out personal independence payment forms. Our innovation lab is working with local advisers to test new ideas that help clients prepare and get started with complex applications.
All these areas represent a mix of opportunities, ranging from the feasible to the unknown. To address these would require the government and the charity sector to work together, towards achieving the best outcomes for people. We’re wrapping this work into our product strategy and in experiments run by our innovation lab, so watch our blog for updates. We’d love to hear from you if you’re tackling similar challenges.