There are few better examples than the Companies Registration Office (CRO) of how electronic commerce can fundamentally change the way an organisation does its work.
In recent years, the CRO has put a range of services online and, after a relatively slow start, the business community is really starting to respond and see the benefits.
There has been a sharp increase in the percentage of most forms being filed electronically over the past couple of years. For example, in 2003, 17pc of firms filed a change director/secretary notice electronically. Last year that figure had jumped to 44pc. Similarly, 47pc of users filed a change in registered office electronically in 2005 compared with 20pc in 2003. For registration of business names, the difference was even greater — 44pc last year compared with just 9pc in 2003.
Paul Farrell, registrar at the CRO, who has witnessed this rapid increase in web-based interaction, believes that a tipping point has now been reached. “In the second half of last year and earlier this year, it has really taken off. It’s become much more normal to conduct business with the CRO electronically. We’ve got to the stage where companies expect to do their business online and that change is very significant.”
One reason for CRO’s success is that it has not been shy about taking bold steps to drive the uptake of its online services. Last year, for example, it introduced a financial incentive for firms to move online by charging lower fees for online services. Filing annual returns costs €20 electronically compared with the standard charge of €40, while other forms such as change of address are €15 on paper but free electronically. After the cost of filing or changing a business name was dropped from €40 to €20 for online transactions late last year, the effect was dramatic. “We could see a huge difference — the percentage of companies that filed business names online jumped from 40pc to nearly 60pc by the end of the year,” says assistant registrar Theresa Fitzpatrick.
The latest enhancement to the CRO’s service offering happened last September when the new system called Core (Companies Online Registration Environment) went live. It is essentially a portal for ‘presenting’ companies — the hundreds of professional services firms such as accountants and solicitors who engage with the CRO on behalf of their clients — which makes it easier for them to organise their clients’ business.
Using Core a presenting company can: check the status of companies in lists which can be sorted in various orders; receive notification of filings for companies in their portfolio and of changes in the status of those documents; watch their companies; and obtain their CRO account balance, transactions and statements.
The system also helps push the enforcement agenda by making it easier for presenting firms to file their clients’ annual returns online. The paradox is that the CRO levies fines worth €22m a year for late filings and better enforcement would drive down those revenues. “If we succeed in reducing that figure to zero, it will be a substantial return on investment — not for us but for the companies we deal with. We want the returns filed and we’ll do anything we can to make it easier for companies to file returns and do business with us,” says Farrell.
The system, which was developed by a Dublin-based software firm called Enterprise Registry Solutions, cost a relatively modest €150,000 plus Vat to build and the expectation is that it will have been well worth the investment if it succeeds in achieving better rates of compliance among businesses.
Before Core went live, it was fully tested with the user community to ensure that suggestions and improvements could be accommodated. The resulting feedback resulted in some useful suggestions, says Fitzpatrick. “Some of the presenters would have hundreds of companies on their books and they wanted a way to find their clients quickly rather than having to scroll right down the page. So we have a search bar at the top of the page and by inserting their client name or number they can quickly find them. Another suggestion we plan to implement soon is a way to save a list of companies to an Excel spreadsheet.”
With Core firmly bedded down, two other projects already under way will further facilitate electronic filing. The first stems from a legal amendment made last year that made it possible for companies to appoint an electronic filing agent who would, under the Companies Acts, be able to sign documents on their behalf. “That is proving very interesting and we’re getting very positive feedback,” says Farrell. “It means that they’re not tied up getting signatures from directors although they have to make sure from the control point of view that they have approval from the directors.”
The second project in the pipeline is aimed at making it as easy as possible for companies to complete their annual return by giving them access to last year’s return so that they can edit and modify it for the return due in the current year.
The filing of annual returns is the one area where electronic filing has yet to change user behaviour substantially, with only about 5pc of firms completing their annual returns using the CRO website. But Fitzpatrick is confident that the new Core system in combination with the introduction of the electronic filing agent will change all that. “By October I’d hope that maybe 30pc of companies would be filing their returns electronically.”
Although the level of online interaction the CRO is having with its clients is far higher than it used to be, Farrell is confident that this figure can be pushed up even higher.
“The trend we see in the years ahead is for businesses to move towards 100pc of their dealings with the CRO being online.”
By Brian Skelly
Pictured: Paul Farrell, registrar of the Companies Registration Office