A little and often

Disclaimer: This post may not make me popular with my fellow freelancers and small business owners. Neither does it necessarily reflect the positions, strategies, or opinions of my clients. But you knew that anyway, right?

On Monday MPs will debate the subject of tax reporting for small businesses and the self-employed. The trigger for this is a 100,000-plus signature petition calling on the government to “scrap plans forcing self employed & small business to do 4 tax returns yearly.”

As a small-business owner myself (5’4″ if you must know), I share the petitioners’ concerns. I already make monthly pay reports and quarterly VAT returns to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I don’t want to deal with extra bureaucracy, pay out more in accountancy fees or risk fines for getting things wrong.

But as a practitioner and advocate of lean and agile techniques, I can’t support keeping the status quo of one big annual tax return. To do so would deny one of our core tenets: that the more frequently we do things, the better we get at them.

A little and often keeps us in control. More iterations mean more moments to learn, more chances to change things for the better. More frequent inspection catches issues sooner, before they can grow into bigger problems.

So I buy the government’s assertion in its response to the petition that:

Making Tax Digital will not mean ‘four tax returns a year’. Quarterly updates will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘send’.

New, better ways will emerge to keep us on top of our tax affairs. In the mean time, small businesses need help getting there and I trust HMRC will show its famous flexibility so that no one is unduly put out.

To the MPs debating in Westminster Hall, this small business owner says Quarterly Tax Reporting For the Win! Show me the ‘send’ button and I’ll click it. Four times a year if I must.

On one condition: that we make representation as agile as taxation.


A short walk from London King’s Cross Station is Cartwright Gardens, named after political reformer Major John Cartwright (1740-1824). There you can squint through a temporary fence at a statue of the great man, seated above a list of his causes and achievements:

  • Universal Suffrage, Check!
  • Equal Representation, Check!
  • Vote by Ballot, Check!
  • Independence of the United States of America, Check!

Only one remains outstanding: “Annual Parliaments”.

For a generation after Cartwright, this remained a demand of the Chartists (1838-1858):

Annual Parliament Elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

Once their other points were met, successive waves of reformers allowed this detail to slip off the agenda. That’s a shame because I reckon much of the malaise in our democracy comes down to the way we binge on it so infrequently that we never learn to do it properly.

Thanks to the pioneering digital efforts of HMRC, I realise that the time has now come, not just to revive this long-standing demand but to redouble it.

Why rely on polling companies whose imperfect models go for years getting more out of kilter when we could use digital technology to hold real elections multiple times per year?

These need not herald wholesale changes of government every 13 weeks – though that could occasionally be the consequence. We could smooth the curve by rotating the seats up for election, or the voters who take part each time.

There will of course be objections, concerning the cost, practicality and desirability of my modest proposal. But I think they can be met in much the same vein as the government’s answer to the tax petition:

Making Democracy Digital will not mean ‘four trips to the polling station a year’. Quarterly elections will largely be a matter of checking data generated from record keeping software or apps and clicking ‘vote’.

We should celebrate the tax collectors becoming more agile. Because where they lead, the returning officers must follow.


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