Case Government

Dutch Tax and Customs Administration: the birth of Cognitatie

If only we had a tool that would help us incorporate the effect of legislative changes into our systems, so that we would no longer have to go through changes manually. That would certainly make life easier!

It was this idea that prompted IT architect Diederik Dulfer of the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration and his manager Peter Straatsma to launch a European tender in 2013 to find a vendor that would venture to offer such a tool. The Dutch Tax and Customs Administration is a large federal government body that continually faces the challenge of having to incorporate legislative changes into its IT systems. PNA’s Cognitatie tool facilitates implementing such changes faster and making them traceable.

Diederik Dulfer, Architect Business Rules Management Belastingdienst

‘I knew that no such tool had been developed until then. But I also knew that it had to be possible to build one,’ says Dulfer, a computer scientist who has been with the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration for 18 years. Four parties responded to the invitation to tender. ‘Two of them impressed us with their vision an expertise. PNA was the most appealing of the two in terms of pricing,’ says Dulfer, explaining why the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration decided to award the project to the knowledge management provider. ‘PNA comes with the added advantage that it has a wealth of experience in requirements analysis, which was definitely useful in the development process.’ The tender also included the requirement that the bidding party was not only to develop the tool for the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration, but was also expected to offer it to other clients. ‘As a result, we would be able to benefit from the extras that PNA was sure to develop for other clients. Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch Department of Public Works, has now also embraced Cognitatie. For them, PNA created the option to access the tool using an iPad and this feature has now become available to us as well.’

A single text analysis as a source

‘Dutch laws are regularly subject to change,’ says Dulfer, addressing the importance of the tool to the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration. ‘In terms of personal income tax alone, about 5% to 10% of the rules will change every year. Incorporating a legislative change into our IT systems usually takes nine months. One of the reasons for this taking so long is that the incorporation of changes into IT systems is an extremely labor intensive process.’ So, there are many efficiencies to be had by partially automating that process. The tool that PNA developed for the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration was dubbed Cognitatie. Dulfer describes Cognitatie as ‘an environment for performing and capturing targeted text analysis’. He opens his laptop to demonstrate how this works. A legal text appears on the screen. Above the words that require defining for the IT system to be able to interpret them, there are color coded bars, for example in blue and green. They have been put there earlier by specialists. By clicking on a bar, the explanation of a term pops up as well as the category in which the term has been classified. This is how the text is clarified, using non ambiguous terms. Legal texts sometimes happen to use the same words for different things. To illustrate, the term ‘means-tested’ does not always have the same meaning in a health insurance context. A legal expert can deduce the right meaning from the context, but an IT system needs a precise description to make sure that the correct tax assessment is eventually imposed on a taxpayer. ‘To perform a text analysis, you need a specialist to formulate unambiguous definitions of legal concepts,’ says Dulfer. ‘Once you’ve done that for a legal text or a policy document, you only need to make changes where relevant. You don’t have to re-analyze the entire text. In the old situation, everyone who had to make a change performed their own analysis in Word. Now we can use each other’s analysis results, which eliminates differences in interpretation or reveals interpretation differences and allows us to resolve them right away. Besides speeding up the process, working with Cognitatie also reduces the chance of errors.’

2018: Cognitatie ready to go live

Cognitatie also allows clients to specify correlations between concepts from different pieces of legislation and policy papers. ‘We’re dealing with laws, orders in council, ministerial regulations and implementation policies. Cognitatie enables us to capture them all, including their correlations.’ An example of such a correlation is that between the Dutch Personal Income Tax Act and the Dutch Valuation of Immovable Property Act when it comes to the term ‘property value’. The Personal Income Tax Act uses this term in the meaning defined in the Valuation of Immovable Property Act. ‘Cognitatie allows you to actually see these correlations between rules,’ explains Dulfer. It also tells you which law takes precedence over another, e.g. the Dutch Personal Income Tax Act or the Dutch General Administrative Law Act. If annotations are changed, you can also view the history, so that it’s clear who made a change.’ What is more, an organization can choose its own words to specify and classify terms in the text. They do not need to work with the language used by the vendor. ‘That makes Cognitatie incredibly flexible.’ This flexibility also allows linking with other software currently in use by many government bodies to organize or analyze rules, such as RuleXpress. ‘PNA completed the first version of Cognitatie in 2014. In that first phase, the tool was piloted by a number of people. We expanded Cognitatie in 2015 and 2016, for instance by adding a reporting function. That’s one of the great things about Cognitatie: you can compile reports based on your own wishes and requirements,’ says Dulfer. ‘You can then download them to Excel. In 2017, we decided to take the development down a notch. Now – early in 2018 – we’re ready to go live with it. Cognitatie will be used for annotating legislation, regulations and policy designed to invite taxpayer to file their personal income tax returns.’

Teamwork

Over the past few years, the client and the vendor have gotten to know each other very well thanks to their teamwork. Dulfer: ‘It took some getting used to at the start: new people, joint project-based development, the way of looking at a text. You learn a lot from each other’s weaknesses during the process. In the first version, for instance, we felt there was no user-friendly interface. PNA wasn’t able to develop one until we had defined more clearly what we meant by “user-friendly”. They responded well when we complained about that.’ ‘The system has become more and more mature over time,’ says Dulfer. The Dutch Tax and Customs Administration will introduce Cognitatie gradually, but its potential is huge, in Dulfer’s opinion. ‘It could also be used for developing data models or process models that formalize a workflow.’ Dulfer is happy with PNA’s expertise for system specification. ‘The tool’s functional effectiveness is excellent. Many of our people are excited to see it because it ties in perfectly with the needs of those who perform text analysis and those who have to rely on these results.’

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