A simple language for a simple solution

A unique partnership between a provincial ministry and Microsoft Corp. has resulted in an XML-based address change service that has streamlined the way businesses interact with the government.

Committee examines XML tax standard

A technical committee formed in December by members of OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) has been given the task of advancing a standard for the exchange of tax-related information based on XML.

The OASIS Tax XML Technical Committee includes representatives of government agencies in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, in addition to businesses and financial institutions. The committee will develop a common vocabulary that will allow tax reporting and compliance information to be identified and shared.

Rod Quiney, a deputy assistant commissioner with Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, said his organization’s main interest in the creation of an XML-based tax standard is to find workable solutions.

“Our interest in this is making sure that what comes out of this is effective both in terms of our relationships with other tax administrations and our relationships with Canadian businesses,” he said.

Quiney added that the committee has some work ahead before determining whether XML is the solution sought by interested stakeholders.

“It remains to be seen whether there is a vast future in this,” he said. “We would want to see, for example, what benefit we could get from XML versus any other software standard.”

Gregory Carson, chair of the new OASIS committee and the director of electronic tax administration modernization for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, is more optimistic. He says everyone stands to gain from tax XML.

“Software vendors and tax agencies will no longer need to maintain jurisdictionally specific applications and interchange standards,” he said. “CRM, payroll, and financial developers will be able to reduce their system integration costs. Even taxpayers will benefit from the increased services that will be made possible by more flexible tax XML interchange formats.”

Launched in May 2002 and amalgamated with British Columbia’s OneStop Business Services Web site, the Single Change of Business Address (SCOBA) service allows businesses registered in the province to notify the appropriate government agencies when they change locations.

“The whole focus is to notify the government about your change of address once and then SCOBA takes care of… talking to the different systems at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to enact that change,” said Tom Scharien, chief information officer for both B.C.’s Ministry of Competition, Science and Enterprise and the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

To ensure that the correct information is shared with all the relevant agencies – which include the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Industry Canada, B.C.’s consumer taxation branch, the provincial workers’ compensation board and the provincial corporate registrar – the government enlisted Microsoft as a partner and XML as a solution.

“XML basically gives us a structured language that allows us to standardize how data is formatted and presented at various levels,” said Ben Watson, Microsoft’s manager for .NET Web services. “In this case, because we had different types of applications and different types of servers that needed to update addresses, we needed something like XML to be able to ensure the information was in a readable format in all of those systems. We also needed to be able to verify that the information had been submitted and correctly received.”

In terms of advantages, Scharien says the XML solution provides a level of standardization but doesn’t necessarily tie the government to one vendor. That means different products operating at a high level of service.

“We’re very strong believers in standardization and openness,” Scharien said. “It gives us more flexibility in the future because we’ll be able to select from many products that support the same standard. So it gives us long term flexibility and reduces costs

and maintenance.”

As for the challenges with implementing the XML solution, Watson says there really weren’t any. He said this is because in most cases XML is automatically generated by the programming.

“The development parts that are usually tricky are in getting each of the different systems to agree to read the XML and deliver XML up to the presentation layer,” he said. “Overall, this was one of the easier projects that we’ve undertaken.”

Scharien agreed. He did note, however, that some business challenges weren’t related to technology.

“One of the key things when you’re introducing something like this is it’s a different way of doing business for your partners,” he said. “And for the partners to buy into this is the biggest challenge.”

But with the advantages that SCOBA offers, it isn’t difficult to see why the partners bought into the service. With information coming from a single source, the XML-based Web service also reduces the workload for the businesses that have to notify the government about their address change and the room for human error on the part of government employees.

“The nice thing about this was it took the emphasis off the customer facing representatives at the government and allowed the updates to take place from an end user driven application,” Watson said. “If I’m the business, I change my address and each of those agencies are automatically notified of the update.”

Scharien noted that “the information is entered once by the client and as a result the government organizations don’t have to take a paper form they receive in the mail and enter it. And once they receive it, we know all of the organizations are actually dealing with the same information so there aren’t any inconsistencies.”

As for the future of SCOBA, Scharien says the next phase is to expand it so that municipalities in the province are brought into the loop. He said this would be especially advantageous for large companies with locations in several cities.

Under the current system, if a large company were to change the address of their head office they would have to notify every municipality of the change. But if the municipalities were part of SCOBA, a business could enter their new address electronically and all the appropriate government agencies would be brought up to date.

As for the future of XML in the government, Scharien says he sees it becoming increasingly popular as a means of allowing different systems within the government to share information.

“XML applications are definitely gaining popularity,” he said. “We’re realizing that for different ministries and organizations to interact with each other to provide a unified service window to customers, we can accomplish our tasks much easier using standards like XML.”