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An inside look at how HMRC delivered its rapid COVID-19 response

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 10, 2020
HMRC strategy and innovation director describes how cloud adoption and reskilling played a vital role in the pandemic

Image of a woman wearing a face mask because of COVID-19
(Image by NickyPe from Pixabay )

The launch of three technologies by HMRC to help the UK economy cope with the Coronavirus pandemic are, in fact the culmination of six years of technology modernisation, reskilling and enterprise cloud computing adoption says Antony Collard, HMRC Director, Strategy, Design, Architecture and Innovation.

Collard and his Chief Digital and Information Officer team developed the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), and the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme (SSPR) technologies in one of the public sector's most rapid policy and technology deployments.

We have built award-winning IT platforms, developed a progressive API strategy to enable Making Tax Digital, and were the first in government to explore robotics, and the first to have its own native mobile App. But, in many ways, that was about catching up with what was already going on outside in the private sector.

Collard says of the long journey HMRC has been on to place technology at the heart of the department. In the last 12 years, HMRC technology has undergone significant change - in 2010 the major Aspire outsourcing contract with Capgemini was renegotiated and began the return of technology control to the department. Throughout 2011 to 2012, the department operated the 13 Machines programme, which consolidated 550 applications on to 13 platforms that the then CIO Phil Pavitt and team had identified as already residing within the tax collector.

Our vision is to be world-class at what we do. We've embarked on a Technology Sourcing Programme, which will open up our supply chain, giving us greater access to innovation in the marketplace.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now globally famous for claiming that the UK will develop world beating technologies to track and trace the Coronavirus, and as diginomica has charted, the programme has been beset with problems and is only world class in its failure. Fortunately for Collard and HMRC, the three technologies the department was responsible for to reduce the impact of the virus on the economy, have not been met with the Johnson curse.

In part this success is due to the skills and technology platforms HMRC has put in place.

It is essential for us to have good tech skills to compliment the other professions that exist, and create the best outcomes.

Since exiting an outsourced IT contract in 2017, we are increasingly delivering in-house. This move has required us to fundamentally change the way we manage our IT and maintain the estate. It has meant we have needed to grow our capability across a range of areas. For example, we've set up a Centre of Excellence for cloud that's helping us increase the resilience and scalability of our systems. And we still use external partners to help us.

That mix of partners has enabled HMRC to jointly develop a strong cloud technology architecture, and improve the diversity of the organisation, something partners such as eSynergy Solutions has been key to.

Teams that embrace diversity tend to deliver better outcomes and make better decisions.

HR at HMRC confirmed to Diginomica that almost 12% of staff in the CDIO group come from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and around 42% are female and added that "we still have further to go".

Three technologies for a pandemic

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) has gained the most attention during the pandemic, but Collard and team also developed the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme (SSPR) technology platforms. And as the business technology leader reveals, all three tools used IT already in place at HMRC. Core components from several platforms were knitted together to create an end-to-end service.

The external service for customers was built on our Multi-Channel Digital Tax Platform (MDTP). MDTP allows us to build flexibly, quickly and securely.

It took exactly a month to deliver the CJRS - the Chancellor announced the scheme on 20 March 2020 and the service went live exactly a month later on 20 April. 99% of the technology used to build the services existed on our estate already.

All three COVID scheme services were built from scratch using agile ways of working, across the entire end-to-end technology stack. We evolved the service hour by hour, day by day. This was a tremendous collaborative effort across the whole of the department, not just IT - policy, payments, finance, customer service and many others. Teams were highly empowered, making decisions at speed. Could we have done it better? Not in the time we had. I likened it to trying to land a jet on an ironing board. The teams did an amazing job.

The adoption of cross functional teams and agile played a major role in the development of all three systems.

We had two teams. CJRS and SSPR were similar from a design perspective. SEISS was slightly different, reflecting the different customers and needs. Each team had around 100 people involved either part time or full time, representing the full range of IT skills (development, architecture, product manager, QA, user researcher, data scientists, designers, scrum masters, security specialists). These worked in small collaborative teams across the tech stack (front end, integration, security, payments, data, engineering).

HMRC is claiming great successes for the three technologies.

In its first week, the CJRS service handled over 600,000 claims, totaling nearly £5bn and achieved a customer satisfaction rating of over 86%. By 14 June 2020, HMRC had processed over 1.1 million grant claims and paid over £20.8 billion in grants to employers supporting the wages of more than 9.1 million employees.

Applications for the first SEISS grant opened on 13 May 2020, 19 days ahead of schedule. The eligible population was 3.4 million. Within 36 hours of opening, over one million claims had been processed at a value of £3 billion and, as of 9 June, a total of 2.6 million claims had been made and £7.5bn paid out.

The SSPR service launched on 26 May, some five weeks ahead of schedule. Three weeks after launch, the service had helped over 30,000 businesses, has a customer satisfaction score of over 91% and a digital take-up rate of over 99%.

All of this was delivered from kitchen tables and spare bedrooms across the country Collard says, adding that the collaboration tools used by HMRC ensured teams were able to remain in constant contact.

This allowed a full contribution from every one, without anyone suffering from being remote from a majority, as often happens in normal office working.

Our teams needed to develop some new practices on the fly. For example, developers kept an open video chat going throughout the day so they could stay in constant contact with colleagues to engage in activities such as pair programming and frictionless problem solving, effectively simulating being around a cluster of desks together.

In a sign of the changing nature of organisations post Coronavirus, Collard observes HMRC saved time on the project due to travel being curtailed and productivity increased, but he adds the size of the task at hand will have contributed to this.

The scale of the achievement in delivering the COVID schemes in a matter of just a few weeks has led to reflection within HMRC about how ‘normal' project delivery should be approached. The nature of the way in which change projects are delivered is being assessed as well as a reassessment of what is possible within short timeframes with the right focus and team dynamics.

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