HMRC's digital transformation - DevOps in a world after Aspire

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton October 12, 2016
As HMRC continues its transition away from the Aspire outsourcing contract, one Agile development firm talks through the DevOps role in shaping a digital tax regime.

Until recently, the good ship HMRC had seemed to be all at sea in technology terms, with a dead whale onboard - the once lauded Aspire deal. Now that carcass is being slowly heaved overboard – while the government’s auditors voice concerns – but who or what is taking its place?

One of the suppliers involve is an organisation called Equal Experts, a UK network of agile developers and consultants, whose remit is “simple solutions to big business problems”. Its blue-chip client list includes Tesco, UBS, O2, Elsevier, Legal & General, and (intriguingly, in these politically superheated times) Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant.

Equal Experts has been one of the key contributors to the ongoing revamp of the Revenue and to building the HMRC Digital platform, refocusing the service to meet its goal of helping every taxpayer to use it with minimal fuss.

That’s a big aim. Every adult and business in the UK uses HMRC: 45 million individuals and five million businesses. It’s also the UK’s biggest organisation, with 58,000 full-time employees – down from 67,000 in 2011 – in 170 offices, bringing in  £517 billion pounds of annual revenue at a current cost of £3.2 billion (according to 2015 figures).

Bethan Timmins is Delivery Manager for Equal Experts. She explains:

What we wanted was for all these people to be able to drive through to their business or personal tax accounts much more easily, so we built what we call the Tax Account Router. This means that all of the self-assessment journeys now converge onto our platform rather than diverting to the old platform that was there before.

So we built the Router, but that’s actually changed the way that HMRC is working. HMRC was traditionally evolving the organisation around whatever the Treasury and the government of the time wanted. But what we wanted to do was to make it about the actual taxpayers that were using the system.

The context for this is the government’s ongoing drive to digital, and towards slashing Whitehall’s operating costs in the process. Timmins continues:

Over the course of this Parliament, HMRC has been given goals by this government: we need to bring in more money to fund UK plc, and we need to improve the service we offer our customers. We also need to reduce our cost base, and we’ve been given a target of a 15% reduction by 2020.

It’s well-known that as part of the 2015 Spending Review and Autumn Statement, HMRC was given $1.3 billion to help transform the organisation until 2020 – a figure that equates to nearly all of the £1.6 billion target cost savings the organisation was asked to make over four years from 2011, according to the National Audit Office.

In short, the figures reveal that HMRC has quietly laid off 9,000 staff since 2011, and handed many of the cost savings to digital transformation consultants, including Equal Experts. Says Timmins:

We’re trying to create a world-class public service. What that means is a place where the citizens of the UK are happy to deal with the tax office, rather than being forced to. We’ve got to make the experience at least partly enjoyable.

HMRC also wants to become one of the most digitally-advanced tax organisations in the world, and we’re actually focusing on our taxpayers and what they want.

We’re encouraging citizens to use digital options first, not just the website, but also apps, online help, online chat, mobile services, and having a one-stop shop for your business or personal tax needs.

HMRC also wants to be one of the most digitally advanced workplaces. At least, they are trying to be. They want to be using all the latest technologies and the latest thinking. They want to take advantage of open source software wherever they can, and they want to be learning from the private sector.


So how is Equal Experts going about transforming HMRC at the end of the biggest ‘big ticket’ IT deal in the UK public sector? That transformation is about two things, says Timmins: transforming culture and transforming code. Duncan Crawford is Technical Lead/Architect for Equal Experts. He explains:

Prior to starting HMRC Digital, HMRC didn’t own any of its own technology; it outsourced all of its IT capabilities. And with that outsourcing came a huge amount of governance, which ultimately meant that change wasn’t possible. We got to a stage where there were two major releases a year and some minor changes throughout the year, but step change was completely impossible.

So is he a true digital transformation believer? In the beginning, Crawford was a sceptic:

When I started on the programme, I was told it was going to be a ‘digital transformation delivery wooh!’ [sic]. So I was like, 'Software? I get that, I can build software, but what does this ‘digital transformation’ mean?'.  Well, I thought, 'It’s a buzzword, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s like saying in a waterfall environment, Oh by the way on Thursday we’re going to be agile, OK?'. Most people have no understanding of what that means.

And with all things that I don’t understand, I tend to ignore them. So I ignored it, and that was good to start with.  Then I started looking at building and delivering a piece of software, and we began by creating a small, isolated team, and what I mean by that is [it’s important to] give yourself sufficient room, some space where you can separate yourself from the organisation and you can show them that there’s another way. But don’t isolate yourself completely: you’ve got to have a touchpoint back to the organisation... I like to think about this isolation as being an incubator for change, or your green patch on a big, horrible brown field onto which you can expand.

So Crawford set about expanding Equal Experts’ private green patch on the big, horrible brown field of HMRC: nice work if you can get it. He continues:

So we built up some trust within digital and we grew, we grew organically. We started with a team in London, and then we added Newcastle – and that was really hard because we were surprised or even naïve about problems of colocating teams. You get a lot out of ‘Bob being next to you’, and being able to say ‘Bob, you messed up my bill’, and actually we weren’t ready to be split apart and to have different teams. Newcastle didn’t get it, they didn’t get what we were trying to build, and it was really hard and we had to do lots of work on that.  And then we expanded some more and in 2015, we brought in Telford, Shipley, Manchester, and most recently we’ve created the Worthing delivery centre. Now HMRC Digital Delivery is at somewhere above 900 people. We keep expanding all the time.

My take

It’s clear that after heaving the dead whale of Aspire overboard, the good ship HMRC is now covered in hundreds of small developer ‘barnacles’, which are spreading over the hull nationally in ways that are causing the new teams internal governance problems of their own.

Says Crawford:

This growth happened over three and a half years. It’s pretty amazing it happened in government, but I don’t recommend it to anyone. It’s been organic, but it’s been aggressive. But that is testament to the fact that the government are doing something great and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to scale over this period of time.

So what of the product itself? Equal Experts should be congratulated for getting a new digital project up and running in central government in a matter of weeks in October 2015. A year later, the Router is handling 55 million visits, with savings to date of £8 million, claims Timmins.

Crawford adds:

We’ve had zero downtime. We achieved this by delivering a multi-active solution, moving from a single cloud provider to multiple cloud providers. At the moment we have two, but we could have n.

Cross-cloud providers... people don’t do this often. They might do multi-active with a cloud provider, but we have an active state on two cloud providers.

How were Equal Experts able to build the platform so quickly? Crawford explains:

We’ve gone for centralised DevOps. This is different from the norm. We have one team of 37 DevOps people rather than 37 teams with one DevOps person.

So what were the real lessons of digital transformation? Crawford puts it well:

We delivered the product and we delivered what we set out to do. But what was the product? In a sense, it doesn’t matter.

The deliverable artefact is not the important part. Delivery of that artefact is. So with delivery being key, we started to engage with the organisation and the people within. And software isn’t a problem, people are. In any organisation people are a problem. They have emotions, they have feelings. We’re all different, right? People are complex and software is simple, it’s binary.

So once I started to realise that delivery is about changing people in that organisation, I started to form a better definition of digital transformation. I realised that software is the excuse to bring about organisational change.