Revenue Letter to Pensioners Presents Opportunity For Better Communication Between Government and People

Time for civil service to use plain words

The Revenue Commissioners last week wrote to 150,000 people, warning 115,000 of them that they might owe more tax than they thought.  Even though they were factually correct, they handled the entire exercise so badly that they created a major embarrassment and unnecessarily frightened the vast majority of recipients who owe little or nothing in the way of extra tax.  By their own admission, the number of people likely to owe  anything significant is probably a few thousand.  On top of this, they wrote to thousands of people who have no pensions or who are still in work.

As a consequence of the mass mailing, the Revenue has had to set up a help line to explain the situation to frightened pensioners.  Cabinet ministers have made public statements about it.  It occupies the top slot in the news.

If this isn’t a classic example of government failing to communicate, I don’t know what is.

Revenue deleted the on-line version of the letter, but thanks to the miracle of Googles webcache, we can read it anyway.  As civil service letters go, it isn’t one of the worst.  At least is isn’t full of forthwiths, hereunders and aforesaids, but it still failed utterly to reassure the vast majority who owe nothing or very little.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Re: Weekly Pension from Department of Social Protection (DSP)

I am writing to inform you that we have recently received up to date details of State, Widow’s/Widower’s/Surviving
Civil Partner’s and Invalidity Pensions from the Department of Social Protection (formerly Department of Social
Welfare).

I note that you are a recipient of one of these pensions but it appears that either, you have not previously advised Revenue that you were getting such a pension payment from the DSP, or your circumstances have changed and consequently, these pension details have not been reflected in your PAYE records.

In order to regularise your affairs from 2012 onwards, Revenue has updated your records with your most recent DSP pension details and as a result you may find that additional tax will be deducted by your pension provider or employer from any occupational pension or salary payments that you receive.

Enclosed is a copy of your 2012 Tax Credit Certificate, showing your DSP pension and details of your tax credit entitlements. In addition, overleaf there is a note explaining the information on Tax Credit Certificates and also how tax is calculated on DSP pensions. I strongly encourage you to examine your Tax Credit Certificate as well as the explanatory note to ensure that all is in order.

If you have any queries in relation to the contents of this letter, please contact the lo?call telephone number shown at the top of the page. Further information is also available from www.revenue.ie

Yours faithfully,

District Manager

Now, I know that this letter went out to some who are on very large pensions in addition to the State pension, but the vast majority who received it are elderly people who spent their entire lives on PAYE and never before had to make a tax return.  I think they were entitled to rely on the government departments handling their cases to get their facts straight.  Most people believe that state benefits are not taxable, and since the Social Welfare and the Revenue are both arms of government, I think these pensioners had the right to assume everything was being done correctly.

So what exactly did this letter-writing campaign achieve?  By the Revenue’s own admission, it won’t pull in much extra tax, but it did manage to scare the hell out of 150,000 people.  Most of us don’t like to see an official letter arriving in the post because it usually means trouble.  If we happen to be of an age where we find officialdom intimidating, the likelihood is we won’t even read the letter carefully.  We’ll just see phrases like additional tax.

If the object of good communication is to get an idea out of one mind and into another as effectively as possible, the Revenue has completely failed.  Not only did they fail to convey their meaning, but they have had to set up an expensive helpline and no doubt pay many officials overtime to deal with the postal, email and phone queries.

I’ve written before about the bureaucracy’s love affair with pompous and opaque language, and here is a classic example of why it’s not only ineffective but also counterproductive and costly.  The UK government realised this years ago and set up a full programme to ensure that people are written to in plain language which, incidentally, is not the same thing as over-simplified language.  Anyone in proper command of their brief should be capable of explaining a complex matter to a general reader without resorting to jargon.

It’s hard to write plain language because you have to think instead of relying on pre-digested snippets of prose that approximate what you wanted to say.  It takes work to make a letter understandable, but it’s worth it, and now is the time for our government to undertake a plain language campaign of its own.  Not only would that show more respect to us, the citizens, but it would make financial sense.  If you write to somebody and they understand your meaning first time, you don’t have to waste resources writing again, answering phone calls and perhaps failing to get what you wanted in the first oplace.

It’s time to dump the Victorian habits of pompous overblown language and start addressing people in plain words that make sense.

7 thoughts on “Revenue Letter to Pensioners Presents Opportunity For Better Communication Between Government and People

  1. Perhaps the letter caused a number of heart attacks, strokes, etc., hence taking a few people off the pension accounts. Saving accomplished.
    So proud we should be to have such pompous and linguistically challenged sphincter-licking bureaucrats looking after the coffers of the State.

  2. Whoh! Thats the letter all the fuss is about! I genuinely cannot see how a normal person could not comprehend this letter. Nor is it aggressive or snotty.

    I think the situation here is quite simple. People don’t like to get letters telling them they may need to pay more tax. When those people are Irish pensioners, we (or at least elements in the media) seem to have decided that under no circumstances shall anyone upset any pensioner. Ever. Its just not on, the poor old dears, they built the country blah blah, and now you’ve just gone and upset them, and they’re too frail and feeble minded to understand . Which is a load of crap.

    I bet if it was a letter telling them they were due a rebate they’d understand it just fine.

  3. A seasoned cynic/sceptic of my acquaintance thinks that this furore has been cunningly engineered to undermine the oldies protest power, so that when the government really hits them next year (by, say, abolishing the free travel or whatever) any protests will be met by the public with a shrug and “not you lot mouthing off again”. If thats true, it is quite a cunning plan, and may work quite well. I’m already pissed off with them, moaning about cuts when they, more so than any other age group, voted and continue to vote FF/FG. Not to mention holding their medical card protests in a f**king church, for christ sake.

  4. Looks like you were savaged by a pack of marauding pensioners.

    Many people are completely savvy while others know almost nothing at all about the tax system, having paid PAYE all their lives. Likewise, some people are in the whole of their health while others are frail and feeble minded. That tends to happen with advancing years.

    Anyway, the broader issue in the post is how official Ireland communicates with the public. If you don’t think that process can be made better, fair enough, but I see a lot of room for improvement.

  5. I think the letter is pretty comprehensible myself.
    The problem seems to be incompetence. There’s no real information in the letter as to whether a person has underpaid taxes or not. A letter saying you might owe tax is simply not good enough in my opinion.

    ” I think they were entitled to rely on the government departments handling their cases to get their facts straight. Most people believe that state benefits are not taxable, and since the Social Welfare and the Revenue are both arms of government, I think these pensioners had the right to assume everything was being done correctly.” Exactly!

    What about the hundreds of millions overpaid by PAYE taxpayers each year?
    They’re not writing to people to inform them of their overpayments.

    Fucking penny pinching again in my opinion, whilst billions are pumped into the banks..

    If there should be any uproar it should be directed at the government.
    The handicapped, now the old!
    They’re a disgrace.

  6. Is that all it was? pretty run-of-the-mill dull functional public service letter. Why shouldn’t the state join up the dots? These people’s ages is not the issue – they have been underdeclaring their incomes actively or passively, and they have now been rumbled – game up – big deal. The issue I see in it is that the country’s affairs have been very badly administered for a long time, enabling this to happen in the first place. In these days of computerised everything, this should never have taken so long to get sorted. Shouldn’t their RSI numbers have been matched up long ago?

    They’re not just pensioners – they’re tax-dodgers.

    Nuts

  7. When asked why they couldn’t means test child benefit Revenue replied that communication with DSP was almost impossible. Lo and behold, it isn’t when pensioners are concerned !

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