The UK’s tax department, HMRC, is undertaking a number of digital projects that aim to improve the user experience - whether that be a business or a person - and its interim Chief Digital and Information Officer, Mike Potter, has said that its long-standing outsourcing agreement is “dead”.
Aspire ran for more than ten years and saw HMRC outsource much of its capability to the likes of Capgemini and Fujitsu, costing more than £11 billion over its lifetime. It was broadly criticised, particularly by the Government Digital Service, for being inflexible and for not allowing any innovation to be introduced with the advance of internet-based technologies.
However, speaking at techUK’s Public Sector 2030 conference today in London, Potter said that Aspire “officially died on the 30th of June” and that the department is now working with a wider range of technology partners. Potter said:
What we now have is a series of partnerships with dozens of organisations. Yes we have retained a relationship with people like Accenture an Capgemini, but what we’ve also done is also introduced many others to work with us - small, medium and large enterprises. What matters is that you bring innovation, real innovation. Can you work with us in partnership? Have you got the right commercial approach?
I’m enormously proud of what we’ve done. We’ve created a much bigger public service organisation. But we’ve actually done is taken control of our IT and take control of our future.
Previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced plans to ‘Make Tax Digital’ in his spending review at the end of 2015 - with the aim of making the UK’s tax system the most digitally advanced in the world. £1.3 billion was allocated to HMRC to build the systems.
However, Potter was very upbeat about the progress to date, stating that the department now has 12.6 million users submitting their tax information digitally, in less than two years. He said:
We have to transform the experience that we offer to people. We implemented self assessment in the early 90s, and I don’t think a huge amount happened after that. I think it’s time. Do to do that we have to fundamentally change our organisation as well.
In addition to this, he praised how HMRC is serving its customers differently, via a multi-channel service model. For example, it has introduced chatbots, makes greater use of social media with its citizens and business interaction, and has introduced voice biometrics to authenticate users on the phone. As someone that regularly deals with HMRC, I’m not convinced that it has succeeded yet in this area, but it’s good to see that progress is being made.
Connecting government via APIs
Potter explained how HMRC has opened up its APIs to third party software providers and to the financial sector, so that “every business in the UK can now work like big businesses do and work digitally with HMRC”.
However, more importantly, Potter believes that a “flourishing API economy” can be used to help connect up a siloed government and provide users with an experience that feels like they are dealing with one entity, rather than multiple departments. He said:
Core to all of this is that the APIs that we use for digital and for third party software, also mean we can expose information and share it more widely across government, which I think is going to be the most powerful catalyst for change over the coming years. We now expose payroll data to the Home Office, which can then be used for all kinds of fun things.
As of April, if you have a child, we will tell other people in government, a great example of using APIs for a joined up government. If you register a business, we will also tell Companies House that you’ve registered a business. This will fundamentally improve the experience.
Why can we not do that across the whole of government? Where you tell us once and we transact many times as we need to. But you only need to interact once.
Potter added that HMRC has been trailing blockchain technologies to support this. Blockchain is a distributed ledger that allows for the anonymous trading of assets/transactions. The protocol is considered significantly more secure than anything else out there at the moment, as a public record of everything that has been traded is automatically created and any change to a record is automatically logged. Decentralisation is also key to this, as well as the real-time nature of the transactions. Potter said:
Clearly part of that is exploring the technologies that come with it. We have now built a proof of concept based on blockchain that demonstrates that you can actually get all of the 28 organisations that act at the border to coordinate all of their risk and intervention, so we only do it once and we do it well.
The first thing that [users] tell us is that they want government to be joined up. They don’t understand the machinery of government and how it works, and frankly, they don’t want to know. And they shouldn’t need to know either. So we have to change the way that government works, but it’s not about reorganising, which is often the response.
An insightful talk by Potter. On the face of it, it seems that HMRC is seriously exploring a whole raft of new ways that it can improve the user experience. And as noted above, as someone that regularly deals with HMRC, this is greatly needed. At the moment the experience is painful and the ‘digital’ experience is incredibly complicated. Of course these things take time, but I would say that, at the moment, we are a long way off being the most digitally advanced tax system at the world. If HMRC can accelerate these plans, we may be on our way, however.